2021 GOLDSON LECTURE: The Promise of Prevention Science in Addressing Early Childhood Adversity

May 3, 2021 @ 6:52 pm
By Communications Office

Prolonged trauma in early childhood can be devastating, but there is also a window of opportunity for interventions, says Dr. Brenda Jones Harden.

On March 11, Dr. Brenda Jones Harden delivered the 2021 Mary Funnyé Goldson Lecture on what we can do to prevent or reverse the damaging and sometimes long-lasting effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), particularly for children of color.

She began her remarks by paying tribute to Mary Funnyé Goldson, for whom the lecture series is named, for being a scientist practitioner with a singular focus on children in the child welfare system. Jones Harden said she admired the late Columbia professor for spending her career advocating for poor children and thinking about how to design innovative programs to better these children’s lives.

Jones Harden, who is the Alison Richman Professor for Children and Families at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, has spent more than 35 years working on the developmental and mental health needs of young children at environmental risk. Specifically, she is interested in improving the lives of children who have been maltreated, are in the foster care system, or have been exposed to multiple family risks such as maternal depression, parent substance use, and poverty.

But she was not always an academic, having spent the early part of her career as a practicing social worker in child welfare services—an experience that she said informs her research and has led to her self-identity as “scientist practitioner,” with a passion for ensuring that her research informs the development of interventions to improve the outcomes of vulnerable children and their families.

Presenting the findings of her latest research about the youngest children—the “little, little people” to whom she dedicates her work—Jones Harden said that one of the greatest challenges facing researchers and practitioners in this field has been the growth in child poverty, with its “pernicious impact” on not only children’s temporary well-being but also on their long-term development.

Triple jeopardy for vulnerable children

While overall poverty in the United States has been on the decline in recent years, the number of children living in deep poverty has grown, she said, and “the younger you are, the more likely you are to live in poverty,” with Black children the most affected.

In fact, Black children were most likely to be living in what Jones Harden describes as “triple jeopardy”: the combination of age, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status that puts a child at maximum developmental risk. Black children have the highest rates of infant mortality in the U.S., even when socioeconomic status is removed from the equation. Black children fail to thrive in the same way as white children of the same age due to racial disparities in access to quality services in areas like education, employment training, medical treatment, and mental health, Jones Harden reported.

What can researchers and practitioners do to address this trifecta of ACEs? The key to prevention, Jones Harden says, is to regard very young children of color who are living in poverty as a singular population. “Think of them as a unique group,” she says.

“I’m not saying that we need to place these kids in adoption or in better foster homes,” Jones Harden stated, but that we “have an opportunity to address the needs of these children by intervening into their families very early on in the developmental trajectory.”

Early intervention strategies

Noting that she has been “getting earlier and earlier in my work because I became convinced that if you’re really serious about prevention, then you want to start at the very beginning,” Jones Harden said that her work proceeds from the principle that “infancy is not only a time of vulnerability, it’s a time of opportunity.”

Although the first five years of life are generally understood to be critical for neurological development, Jones Harden’s research shows that to counteract the impact of adversity on young children, particularly maltreated children, interventions should ideally take place before the child reaches age 2, when the brain has more plasticity and neural pathways form at great speed.

It is particularly important for infants to receive stimulation for language development, especially at the critical point of six to seven months, she explained, citing the work of British child psychiatrist Michael Rutter, who studied the development of children who spent their early life in impoverished Romanian orphanages. Rutter and his team found that children who were adopted from the orphanage before they were six months old tended to fare better psychologically and developmentally as teenagers than those who left later. Children who stayed longer in this toxic environment had trouble catching up in later years, when their brains were less plastic.

Jones Harden and her team are also doing research on ways to decrease the amount of toxic stress some children are dealing with from an early age: what she calls “a chronic activation of the body’s stress syndrome.” This approach has meant incorporating a “biodevelopmental framework” into their research, she explained.

“I never thought as a social worker I would be doing this,” she said of the saliva tests she and her team have been administering to mothers and their children, to determine cellular aging in the brain’s neurons, a way of measuring health disparities associated with early life trauma.

A critical role for social workers

Jones Harden stressed that social workers have a critical role to play in promoting structural changes that would help a child to overcome numerous ACEs, such as poverty, violence, racism, and other systemic disadvantages. Social workers can push for greater coordination among educators, home visitors, and medical teams in the provision of services, and can also advocate for programs that have shown some promise, such as pre-K education, Early Head Start, and ABC (a home visitation program that coaches parents to forge a stronger attachment to their child). An integrated service system is essential, Harden said, because social work researchers and practitioners “cannot be held responsible for child welfare all by ourselves.”

Commenting on Jones Harden’s presentation, Dean Melissa Begg said. “I love the fact that your work is hopeful. You’re not just presenting an analysis of predictors and outcomes; you’re painting a picture of actionable steps that we can take to make those outcomes better. That’s really essential.”

Compton Foundation Centennial Professor for the Prevention of Children’s and Youth Problems Jane Waldfogel, who moderated the question-and-answer session, called Jones Harden’s presentation a “tour de force” as it seemed to offer “an entire course in child welfare and early childhood developments in less than an hour.”

About the Mary Funnyé Goldson Lecture

Established in honor of Mary Funnyé Goldson, a beloved member of Columbia School of Social Work’s faculty, this annual lecture aims to expand the knowledge and strengthen the social work practice of family and child support professionals.

Related links:

SWM-010: Translating Neuroscience into Policy and Practice for At-Risk Children, with Dr. Jack Shonkoff

Jane Waldfogel Delivers Expert Testimony to Congress