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Congress Can Leverage Head Start to Help Combat the Opioid Epidemic’s Effects on Children

Resource July 18, 2018

As America’s opioid epidemic continues to devastate communities, numerous child welfare groups are calling attention to short and long-term effects of this crisis on children. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as living with a parent with substance use disorder or being separated from parents due to substance misuse, can lead to the development of toxic stress.  Toxic stress can have life-altering behavioral and physical health effects on children which can ultimately alter the architecture of a child’s brain. Last week, the National Head Start Association (NHSA) was joined by other early childhood advocacy groups in calling for increased Head Start funding and flexibility to support children and families affected by the crisis.

NHSA’s white paper discusses the importance of caring for children effected by the opioid crisis and specifically highlights the role that Head Start has played in providing multigenerational support to families in the past. Previous research from the Bipartisan Policy Center found that comprehensive family-centered approaches are most likely to have positive outcomes for children effected by the epidemic. NHSA believes activating the potential of Head Start could alleviate suffering for tens of thousands of children, change the life trajectories for parents caught in the throes of the opioid epidemic, and save American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term costs.

In NHSA’s white paper, the organization makes concrete recommendations to lawmakers about the ways in which expanding Head Start’s capacity can treat children and families harmed by the opioid crisis:

  1. Provide existing Head Start programs with new resources to implement multi-tiered, proven models of intervention and support for children and families suffering from opioid and other substance misuse in their communities.
  2. Increase personnel capacity of programs to identify children in need of trauma support or behavioral health services and connect them to the best resources.
  3. Provide training for Head Start program staff on how to prevent, identify, and mitigate the effects of trauma.
  4. Support analysis to evaluate impacts of the treatment on a deeper level.

It is now widely understood that a child’s brain is at its most flexible during the first few years of life, making this a critical period for learning, growth and development. Science tells us that children who face severe or prolonged trauma – toxic stress – in the first years of life, such as living with a parent with substance abuse disorder, are more at risk for experiencing damage to their brain architecture, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.

According to the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, “When we are threatened, our bodies prepare us to respond by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, such as cortisol. When a young child’s stress response systems are activated within an environment of supportive relationships with adults, these physiological effects are buffered and brought back down to baseline. The result is the development of healthy stress response systems. However, if the stress response is extreme and long-lasting, and buffering relationships are unavailable to the child, the result can be damaged, weakened systems and brain architecture, with lifelong repercussions.”

Continued understanding of the potential effects of the opioid crisis on children, as well as ways to help children, is vital to ensuring that children can go on to lead a productive and happy life. Like other organizations, the recommendations of the NHSA provides important guidance as we look to how to help children impacted by this epidemic.

Read more about the effort being led by NHSA online here.

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