Early adversity derails lives. It is linked with unemployment, lower income, diminished health and early mortality, not only during a single lifetime, but also through the generations, due to permanent neural changes caused by toxic stress. By recognising the signs of early adversity and acting fast, we help not just one child, but generations to follow.

There is one major challenge. Public and professional understanding on these findings is limited. Children’s behaviour is seen as the prime concern, rather than the conditions that shaped the behaviour. Positive behaviour support is effective for many pre-school children but not always for those who have experienced early adversity.  Early adversity restricts the development of self-regulation, critical thinking, creativity and organisational skills, the accumulated skills that create an attentive, connected child.

On the African plain, if we meet a lion, our bodies release adrenaline, along with cortisol, the stress hormone. Adrenalin and cortisol combined dilate our pupils, make our hearts race and send blood to muscles, readying us for fight and/or flight.

Children living in adverse conditions (neglect, abuse, extreme poverty, bereavement/living with those suffering from addiction/mental illness, etc.) are in a constant state of stress arousal.  Cognitive skills are repeatedly turned off because the child does not need to think or to learn during adversity. They are too busy surviving. Such emergency responses are activated over and over as the child encounters additional stress.

This is a disaster for the young brain.  Repetition of the emergency responses creates negative pathways in the brain, which then become embedded. As a result, such children are viewed as ‘difficult’ when in reality they are on ‘survival mode’.

The knock-on effect is that chronically stressed children are 32 times more likely to have learning difficulties than unstressed children. What happens then? Too often the educational system excludes these children from pre-school or school, unable to deal with such extreme ‘behaviour’.

Despite extensive and conclusive research into early adversity’s grim consequences, there is an unwillingness to invest in early intervention. Our education system supports late intervention, even though it ‘rarely turns lives round.’[1] We currently spend £22.5 billion on poor mental health in this country and the bill is rising each year.

Early intervention is critical, transformative and effective because it tackles issues such as stress in their infancy, before the long-term effects can take their significant hold.

What can YOU do? First of all, spread the word.  Children with ‘behavioural difficulties’ may be suffering from acute, long-term stress. These children aren’t ‘naughty’. Ongoing stress has weakened them to the point of sickness.

Secondly, we observe the child with suspected chronic stress. Here is a list of typical behaviours displayed. Some of these look like ‘normal’ behaviour. When we find some or all of these behaviours in one child, we need to act fast.

The chronically stressed child:

  • gets anxious when the main carer leaves
  • seems absent, with little or no energy
  • does not like to try new things.
  • is unnerved by setbacks
  • gives up easily
  • finds it hard to concentrate
  • attempts to join in play but gives up easily
  • prefers to play alone, withdrawing from other children
  • is often tearful, clingy or restless
  • is prone to angry outbursts
  • does not spontaneously volunteer information

Once we have identified the stressed child, what next? We connect with them. All young children need  ‘serve and return’ within loving relationships. If these vital interactions are missing or unpredictable, the brain cannot develop positive connections. Replenishing these interactions is vital.

This is hard work. A stressed child is in a high state of anxiety, and the slightest negativity will set off their emergency responses.   The calm presence of a practitioner can reduce the levels of cortisol over the day, allowing the child to participate in simple playful learning.

Be patient and have empathy. Keep connecting. Smile. Hug. These small gestures of connection go a long way towards restoring normal cortisol levels, allowing the child the chance to learn essential life skills for the future. These moments of normality have the power of restoring the capacity to learn.

This is early intervention at its most powerful. Give it a go today.


About the author

Helen Garnett is a mother of 4, and a committed and experienced Early Years consultant. She co-founded a pre-school in 2005 and cares passionately about young children and connection. As a result, she has written a book, ‘Developing Empathy in Preschool Children: a handbook for Practitioners‘. She has also co-written an Early Years curriculum and assessment tool, at present being implemented in India. Helen is also on the Think Equal team, a global initiative led by Leslee Udwin, developing empathy in pre-schools and schools across the world. 


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