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Program aims to strengthen families faced with toxic stress

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

LAWRENCE — Adverse experiences that happen early in life may have a long-lasting effect on child development that could lead to lifelong health and mental health problems. According to the Adverse Childhood Experience study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, early stressful experiences such as abuse, neglect, hardship and family dysfunction may lead to disruptions in child social-emotional health and brain development, later engagement in risky behaviors, chronic health problems and early death.

Research has shown that interventions that target parenting to improve the child’s environment and promote factors like maternal sensitivity and secure attachment can help protect children from the effects of early adverse experiences. Intervening in this way promotes resilience and development of coping skills that lead to healthy child social-emotional development. Appropriate intervention may also at least partially reverse negative effects on child brain development that can result from experiences of adversity.  

In response to these recent developments in brain science and protective factor research, researchers at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare Center for Children and Families and the Schiefelbusch Institute for Lifespan Studies at Parsons have initiated a project in partnership with Early Head Start and Smart Start agencies throughout the state of Kansas. 

The purpose of this collaboration is to develop and test strategies for screening to identify children who are experiencing environmental risk before behavioral issues begin to emerge and to providing and testing a new brief intervention that aims to strengthen caregiver sensitivity and attachment to promote child coping and resilience against adversity. 

“Waiting until we begin to notice disruption to the child’s behavior is often well past the time when toxic stress has begun impacting the child’s brain structure and development. It is crucial that we find a way to intervene earlier and support healthy development rather than try to course-correct after the fact. We want to improve screening and intervention to support a positive life trajectory as early, effectively and efficiently as possible,” said Kaela Byers, principal investigator. 

This project is in its third year and has been conducted with support from the United Methodist Health Ministries Fund and the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services.

Agencies who have or are currently participating in the project include Early Head Start programs at Early Childhood Connections in Hays; Southeast Kansas Community Action Program in Girard, and Northeast Kansas Community Action Partnership in Hiawatha, as well as the Smart Start Program at Northwest Kansas Council on Substance Abuse/Birth to Success Coalition. Together, these agencies provide services to 37 of the 105 counties in Kansas.

As part of this project, providers at participating agencies are trained to deliver Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-Up, or ABC, an intervention developed by Dr. Mary Dozier at the University of Delaware. ABC is a 10-week home-visiting program for families with children up to age 3. Research on this program conducted by Dozier and colleagues has shown that it is effective in helping caregivers learn to identify and reinterpret child behavior and respond in ways that promote safe, stable and nurturing care, which fosters development of child coping and regulatory skills. ABC has been shown to improve child stress hormone levels, reduce behavioral concerns, reduce disorganized attachment, improve child social-emotional difficulties and improve parent attitudes and stress. 

"These outcomes are also evident among families who have received this service from Kansas providers who are participating in the project. 
“ABC was the single most effective program I have seen and the progress you see with families even in a few short weeks is remarkable,” said Paige Campbell, Smart Start provider in northwest Kansas.

Families who enroll in services at the participating agencies are eligible to participate in the research study and receive the ABC program. While the current research study will be completed in June 2015, ABC services will continue to be available at the participating agencies with certified providers on staff. Additionally, once the evaluation is complete, the research team anticipates the final resulting product will consist of a comprehensive, biologically validated early-screening tool and improved capacity around the state to provide a brief supplemental intervention for children receiving early childhood services – to be provided in conjunction with traditional services – to target children most at risk of disrupted social-emotional development due to adverse early environments. 

The School of Social Welfare has demonstrated its commitment to and capacity for its mission in working with children and adolescents through the development of the Center for Children and Families (CCF). The CCF exists to coordinate research, training and service activities in the areas of children’s mental health, child welfare, schools, children’s health, family well-being and community outreach. 


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