Join Us


Newsletter Sign Up

Home » Poverty and Toxic Stress

Poverty and Toxic Stress

October 1, 2013


Julia Auch, Early Childhood Literacy Specialist

Julia Auch, Early Childhood Literacy Specialist

According to the new Census Bureau statistics that were released last week, 21.8 percent of American children under the age of 18 lived in poverty in 2012.  This percentage (which was the same in 2011 by the way) suggests that children continue to be America’s poorest people, and apparently, the younger they are the worse off they are. The percentage of children under five living in poverty is 25.1; which is almost 1 in 10.

Living in poverty takes its toll on the developing child, no doubt.  Chronic stress that is associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect the ability to learn, by negatively impacting concentration and memory; both necessary skills for school success.  In addition, stress also leads to behavioral problems which may include impulsiveness, difficulty getting along with peers, aggression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder. This stress, also referred to as toxic stress, is longitudinal; leading to life-long issues such as diabetes, heart disease, depression, drug abuse, alcoholism, and other major health problems.

The epidemic of toxic stress is now receiving a great deal of national attention, as it should.  Federal administrators of the Early Head Start program, serving low-income families with children two and under, think addressing the sources of toxic stress may be the answer.  Therefore, the U.S. Administration for Children and Families (ACF) has coordinated an intense research effort to find more effective ways to enhance child development with our nation’s poorest families.  Early Head Start was selected as “a promising pathway to catalyze new ideas for improving the relationships that can protect children from toxic stress.”

Here’s the good news… research has demonstrated over and over again, that consistent, supportive caregiving has the potential to remediate, or even prevent, the harmful effects of adverse early experiences.  The key is EARLY INTERVENTION, as research also shows that later interventions are likely to be less successful, and in some cases, are even ineffective.  

The bottom line is this – caring relationships are essential for healthy development.   Studies show that toddlers and young preschoolers who have secure, trusting relationships with care­givers, whether parental or non-parental, experience “minimal stress hormone activation when frightened by a strange event, and those who have insecure relationships experience a significant activation of the stress response system.”  Numerous scientific studies support these conclusions:  providing supportive, responsive relationships with a caring adult as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our program at this point in the discussion.  The Ready Readers mission as written is to inspire children from low-income communities to become readers, but it has become quite clear, at least to me, that an even equally important benefit of our program is the relationship-building piece, that allows YOU to become the caring adult that provides the supportive and responsive relationship that all the scientific research references.

Thank you for your commitment to the Ready Readers program and for doing your part to provide positive early experiences for our most fragile and vulnerable.

“Tackling Toxic Stress”

For a glimpse into how policymakers, researchers, and practitioners in the field are re-thinking services for children and families based on the science of early childhood development and an understanding of the consequences of adverse early experiences and toxic stress, please check out the multi-part series of articles, reports, and multimedia presentations commissioned by the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *