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Stress and child development.

Children's early social experiences shape their developing neurological and biological systems for good or for ill, writes Ross Thompson, and the kinds of stressful experiences that are endemic to families living in poverty can alter children's neurobiology in ways that undermine their health, their social competence, and their ability to succeed in school and in life. For example, when children are born into a world where resources are scarce and violence is a constant possibility, neurobiological changes may make them wary and vigilant, and they are likely to have a hard time controlling their emotions, focusing on tasks, and forming healthy relationships. Unfortunately, these adaptive responses to chronic stress serve them poorly in situations, such as school and work, where they must concentrate and cooperate to do well. But thanks to the plasticity of the developing brain and other biological systems, the neurobiological response to chronic stress can be buffered and even reversed, Thompson writes, especially when we intervene early in children's lives. In particular, warm and nurturing relationships between children and adults can serve as a powerful bulwark against the neurobiological changes that accompany stress, and interventions that help build such relationships have shown particular promise. These programs have targeted biological parents, of course, but also foster parents, teachers and other caregivers, and more distant relatives, such as grandparents. For this reason, Thompson suggests that the concept of two-generation programs may need to be expanded, and that we should consider a "multigenerational" approach to helping children living in poverty cope and thrive in the face of chronic stress.

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