© Blog First Steps, IDB´s Social Protection and Health Division 

by Jane Leer 


In Costa Rica 32% of girls are sexually abused as young children, in Chile up to 25% of children experience severe physical abuse at a young age, and in Colombia, 42% of mothers report hitting and beating their children to discipline them. In a sub-sample of urban households in Nicaragua, 16% of children younger than four years old live with someone who abuses drugs or alcohol. Many children are also witness to gender violence perpetrated against their mothers. These figures, not to mention other traumas begot by poverty, such as hunger, precarious living conditions, and displacement, would suggest that many young children in Latin America and the Caribbean could benefit from trauma-informed early childhood education, but what are the options?

The New York Times recently published an article about Head Start Trauma Smart (HSTS), an early childhood education model designed by the Crittenton Children’s Center in Kansas City, Missouri that promotes trauma-informed learning environments in Head Start communities. Based on an evidence-based trauma intervention framework, HSTS ensures that caregivers understand how trauma affects the developing brain and trains them to be able to help children who have experienced trauma identify and control emotions, form healthy relationships, and thrive in the classroom. The HSTS model immediately resonated with me given its applicability to early childhood programs in Latin America and the Caribbean. In fact, I would argue that early childhood programs everywhere should prepare communities to support children who have experienced trauma, especially those that serve our world’s most vulnerable families.

In the US, 40% of children less than 3 years old and living in poverty experience at least one traumatic event—a parent’s arrest or incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse in the home, the death of a loved one, homelessness, or physical and emotional abuse, to name a few. This percentage is even higher among poor families, as the stresses of poverty can really limit caregivers’ ability to provide for the mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of the their children. In turn, children who have experienced traumatic stress are much more likely to have serious behavior issues in school. This is because trauma affects a child’s ability to identify, express, and adjust emotions, to form relationships with peers and caregivers, and to meet age-appropriate development norms. As a result, the risk of drug and alcohol abuse, depression, sexual risk behaviors, and even obesity is anywhere from two to four times greater among children who experience multiple traumatic events.

So, what’s the good news for children with trauma?

Educators, psychologists, and researchers have identified relatively simple ways to enable healthy socio-emotional development for young children who have experienced trauma. HSTS is one example. Not only is the HSTS model effective, it also has the potential to be implemented into existing early childhood development programs in countries with limited resources. Teachers and parents do not have to become professionally trained therapists to support children who have experienced trauma, nor does the intervention require children to be placed in a clinical setting. Rather, the HSTS model is incorporated into centers serving potentially large numbers of children, both those who have experienced trauma and those who have not. All adults at the center—teachers, parents, bus drivers, kitchen staff, secretaries and administrators—receive training that helps them understand both how trauma affects the brain and how to understand and respond to the messages children send through their behavior. Examples include replacing “time outs” with a chance to sit in the “Safe Spot” or the “Calm Down Corner,” validating children’s emotions and helping them problem solve (“I’d be mad too if somebody stole my toy,”), and offering children “the breathing star” or other comfort devices that are designed to help them relax.

Head Start programs in the US have only recently begun implementing the HSTS model, but the initial results are encouraging. Programs that have implemented the HSTS framework have seen marked improvements in classroom environment measures, and even score higher than the national average in some dimensions. Interviews with parents and teachers suggest that the program helps children become less aggressive, develop better sleep habits, and improve their relationships; while parents and teachers themselves report feeling less stressed and better able to respond positively to children’s outbursts. The program benefits all children, as disruptive behavior diminishes and educators spend less time disciplining and more time teaching.

How might the HSTS model be applied in your community? Do you know of any programs in LAC that help caregivers promote trauma-informed learning environments?

Jane Leer works as a consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C., where she supports early childhood development and youth projects.

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