For most of us, stress is a necessary part of life — think about it. Although too much stress curtails productivity, a complete lack of it will kill it off in its entirety. We need a certain modicum of stress to keep us motivated as responsible adults. The stress of having my water turned off motivates me to pay the bill on time; the volatility of the job market ensures we are duly diligent when it comes to job performance.
But for children? That’s a different matter, especially if they are suffering from chronically stressful circumstances over which they have no control.
Study after study has shown that toxic stress can actually thwart brain development in young children. One of the latest studies published in October in JAMA Pediatrics asserts that children who live below the poverty level have smaller white and cortical brain matter. In another study, Princeton researchers found that children living at or below poverty level were 1.5% more likely to experience developmental delays when compared to other children.
The social implications are obvious — that’s why the Nurse-Family Partnership has been studying the impact of intervention programs on young children for the past thirty years.
Their most recent research reveals a mixed bag of results when it comes to the efficacy of such programs. The first dichotomy has to do with who’s actually leading the intervention. They found that in-home interventions conducted by nurses at the ages of 6 and 9 have a positive effect on behavioral issues; however, those conducted by paraprofessionals (unlicensed assistants) have a negligible impact.
The second dichotomy has to do with socio-economic statsus; the researchers discovered that when it comes to effective interventions, racial disparity has decreased over the years. This is good news. However, disparity between the haves and have nots has increased. This is particularly troubling because of the above-mentioned effects of poverty on a young child’s brain development — the process short-circuits when a child is faced with the stress of chronic need.
The irony of the situation is heartbreaking — these are the very children who need quality interventions the most. Fortunately, the Partnership is always searching for ways to better their programs and to improve the quality of life for all children in need.