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What does the science of children's brains mean for public policy?

What does the science of children's brains mean for public policy?

Picture of Arielle Levin Becker
This is a photo of a child in a playground jungle gym.
Photo by Patrik Jones, Flickr Creative Commons

So much crucial brain development occurs in the first three years of life that one researcher jokes that to him and his colleagues, 3-year-olds are practically middle aged.

Children’s experiences during those three years can have a dramatic influence on the rest of their lives. Research suggests that exposure to severe stress – like abuse, neglect, violence or hunger – in very young children has the potential to rewire their stress-response systems, making them overly reactive or prone to shutting down when faced with stress. Other studies have documented the profound, lasting effects that adverse childhood experiences can have on mental and physical health later in life.

Despite all that, the first three years of life often get comparatively little attention in mental health or education policies. Policymakers at the federal and state levels are pushing to broaden access to preschool, but many experts in education believe even that’s starting too late. And while children’s mental health has drawn increased focus in recent years, many people in the field find it’s a challenge to ensure a consistent focus of resources on preventing problems rather than responding to crises that emerge in older children and adults.

With support from the National Health Journalism Fellowship, I plan to spend the next few months exploring the science of early childhood brain development, how so-called “toxic stress” can affect development and mental and physical health, and the implications for public policy.

Part of my reporting will include a look at what can protect children from the effects of toxic stress, and the work of a Connecticut program that has been found to significantly improve outcomes for vulnerable young children by strengthening the relationship between parents or caregivers and their children.

Among the questions I’ll be examining: Why are some people better able to overcome exposure to toxic stress or trauma than others? How much do scientists understand about factors that increase resilience, and what can we learn from it, particularly when it comes to preventing long-term health consequences? Where are the biggest opportunities for intervention, and how can public policy best encourage this to happen?

The result, I hope, will be a series of stories on the science, personal experiences, community and public policy ramifications of exposure to toxic stress, as well as graphics that help to illustrate brain development, the ways stress hormones can interfere, and the role of protective factors.


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Love what you're planning for your line of research. Am interested in the role of play (and safe places to play and walk in the community) on childhood experiences (resilience to toxic stress) as well as expansion of connections that support mental and physical well being. Thanks for your work!


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