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5 Things You Didn’t Know About Early Adversity and Childhood Development

Learn alongside Walden’s Riley College of Education and Human Sciences students as they discover how early adversity can impact child development.

Teachers shape the future, inspiring and motivating millions of students globally each year. Yet as you lead students in exciting new directions—as a teacher, administrator, early childhood educator, or instructor of adult learners—it’s also important to understand the past.

As a Walden University student pursuing a master’s in education online, you’ll dive deep into the latest findings on brain development—research that will expand your understanding of how the earliest childhood years can affect future learning. How stress impacts the developing brain is one of the vital topics you’ll explore in Walden’s graduate programs for teachers. “The Impact of Early Adversity on Children’s Development,” from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, is recommended reading in the M.Ed. course Child Development in the Critical Early Years. This research explores the connection between early adversity and childhood development, highlighting five vital findings: 1

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Early Adversity and Childhood Development

Early experiences influence the developing brain.

From the prenatal period through the first years of life, the brain undergoes its most rapid development, and early experiences determine whether its architecture is sturdy or fragile. During early sensitive periods of development, the brain’s circuitry is most open to the influence of external experiences, for better or for worse. During these sensitive periods, healthy emotional and cognitive development is shaped by responsive, dependable interaction with adults, while chronic or extreme adversity can interrupt normal brain development. For example, children who were placed shortly after birth into orphanages with conditions of severe neglect show dramatically decreased brain activity compared to children who were never institutionalized.

Chronic stress can be toxic to developing brains.

Learning how to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy child development. When we are threatened, our bodies activate a variety of physiological responses, including increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones such as cortisol. When a young child is protected by supportive relationships with adults, he learns to cope with everyday challenges and his stress response system returns to baseline. Scientists call this positive stress. Tolerable stress occurs when more serious difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury, are buffered by caring adults who help the child adapt, which mitigates the potentially damaging effects of abnormal levels of stress hormones. When strong, frequent, or prolonged adverse experiences such as extreme poverty or repeated abuse are experienced without adult support, stress becomes toxic, as excessive cortisol disrupts developing brain circuits.

Significant early adversity can lead to lifelong problems.

Toxic stress experienced early in life and common precipitants of toxic stress—such as poverty, abuse or neglect, parental substance abuse or mental illness, and exposure to violence—can have a cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health. The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and other problems. Adults with more adverse experiences in early childhood are also more likely to have health problems, including alcoholism, depression, heart disease, and diabetes.

Early intervention can prevent the consequences of early adversity.

Research shows that later interventions are likely to be less successful—and in some cases are ineffective. For example, when the same children who experienced extreme neglect were placed in responsive foster care families before age two, their IQs increased more substantially and their brain activity and attachment relationships were more likely to become normal than if they were placed after the age of two. While there is no “magic age” for intervention, it is clear that in most cases, intervening as early as possible is significantly more effective than waiting.

Stable, caring relationships are essential for healthy development.

Children develop in an environment of relationships that begin in the home and include extended family members, early care and education providers, and members of the community. Studies show that toddlers who have secure, trusting relationships with parents or non-parent caregivers 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 as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress.

This is the type of research—scholarly yet accessible—you’ll encounter as you earn a master’s in education at Walden University. With Walden, you can earn a master’s in education online while you continue to work in your chosen field and enjoy family, friends, and the other dynamic elements of your active life. Match your MSEd degree to your interests and talents by choosing from more than a dozen specializations, including Mathematics and Science (Grades K–8), Teacher Leadership (Grades K–12), and Adolescent Literacy and Learning. Find your passion and get ready to inspire a new generation of curious minds to find theirs.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MS in Education degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

1Walden MSEd curriculum source:

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,