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Why Stress Matters

Post by Derrick Toups, 7 March 2021

A young child’s brain is like an exciting and vibrant fireworks show. Born with around 100 billion brain cells, babies instantly begin processing the world outside of their mother’s womb. Through a process called firing, neurons in their brains receive, process, and transport new information and stimuli and begin to wire the child’s brain for connection and learning.

Repeated firings along the same neural pathways yield stronger connections, which build brain density as children practice and gain efficiency in certain skills like hand-eye coordination and communication. Just as we can stimulate a child’s brain development through high-quality experiences and interactions, we can also damage a child’s brain development by exposing them to repeated stress.

When children feel threatened, their bodies respond physiologically by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, such as cortisol. While supportive relationships can help mitigate some of the negative effects of stress, children who experience extreme and long-lasting stress — known as toxic stress — and who do not have consistent nurturing relationships experience disruptions in their development.

In her TED Talk on childhood trauma, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris shares that repeated stresses, such as abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence, can lead to the underdevelopment of executive function skills (those needed for impulse control, planning, and focus) and have been correlated to poorer health outcomes later in life, including heart disease, obesity, and depression.

As we work with children, either as parents, teachers, or education leaders, it is important for us to remember the power of  supportive, responsive relationships to buffer the negative effects of toxic stress for our youngest humans. We can start by supporting those in our sphere of influence to create more consistent and supportive environments for children at home and in schools. When we engage babies in give-and-take conversations and follow their facial and physical cues, for example, we not only help them build connection to others and a sense of trust in the world, but we are also priming their brains to learn any number of concepts later in life.

What can you do in your role to ignite the dazzling fireworks of a child’s brain?

About the Contributor: Derrick Toups, M.Ed. is currently a four-year-old classroom teacher and faculty member of two community college Care and Development of Young Children programs. He is a board member of the Louisiana Early Childhood Association.
Twitter: @derricktoups