Early Experiences Matter

Date: December 2nd, 2015
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Guest Blog Post by Stephanie Guinosso, PhD

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Fredrick Douglass

Many people are now familiar with the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which involved over 17,000 adult Kaiser patients who were asked about adversities they experienced in childhood (i.e., sexual, physical and emotional abuse, neglect, divorce of parents, domestic violence, parental mental illness, substance abuse and incarceration). The ACE Study showed that:

  • Adversities like these are common. In the ACE study, two-thirds of participants experienced at least one adversity before 18 years of age.
  • Adversities often co-occur.  Twenty percent of people who participated in the ACE Study experienced three or more adversities as a young person.
  • The more adversities to which a young person is exposed, the more likely they are to experience a number of different health and developmental consequences.

Although these statistics are staggering, the beauty of the ACE Study is that it started to shift the conversation in the health services profession.  Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you?” we began asking, “What happened to you?”  We started to understand that social experiences could get under the skin and affect one’s biology. This change of perspective created new opportunities for health and healing, and research and action in this field has since grown exponentially. People across the country are talking about how to address trauma and transform adversity into resilience. Communities are coming together to mount a response to ACEs. Researchers are focusing on building a knowledge base and putting data into action.

The ACE Study inspired my own research on the effects of different types of adversities and the timing of adversity exposures on child cognitive development. We now know that experience shapes the brain.  Given the rapid brain development that occurs in early childhood, the young brain is more sensitive to experience—both positive and negative. In fact, findings from my dissertation showed that adversities in the first year of life negatively affected cognitive outcomes (including working memory, attention, and verbal ability) among children nine years later. Similar to the ACE Study, my study showed that more adversities translated to poorer cognitive outcomes for kids. However, the strongest effects on cognitive outcomes were observed for kids whose mothers had less than a high school education and for kids born into poverty.

What do these findings mean? Well, they certainly do not mean that children exposed to these adversities early in life are destined for failure. However, these findings do mean that it is critical to invest in the early years of a child’s life.

Given the significance of adverse exposures at birth, it is important to invest in young parents and parents-to-be by helping them to pursue their education and find opportunities for meaningful employment. With 22% of children in the U.S. currently living below the federal poverty level, policies and programs that aim to alleviate the effects of poverty for families are sorely needed.

For young mothers and fathers trying to finish school and make ends meet financially, early childhood interventions, such as home visiting programs and early childhood education, are effective. These programs aim to bolster the development of key social, emotional, cognitive and health outcomes and have been shown to reduce disparities in achievement evident by the time that socioeconomically disadvantaged children enter kindergarten.

Most importantly, we need to continue to use the science of ACEs to shift the landscape from one of risk to resilience, from harm to health.

About the Author

Stephanie Guinosso recently completed her PhD from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  She currently consults with the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative and works part-time for ETR Associates.

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