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A locally-organized event brought cutting edge research and proven childhood intervention programs to rural Colorado last month, paving the way for a new community approach to early childhood outcomes. The conference also provided the opportunity to highlight the pilot launch in Chaffee County of Seedlings Model of Change, a program intended to break the link between parental history of toxic stress, and the effects of that stress on children.

The conference emphasis: understanding the effects of early childhood stress and trauma on the development of children and applying prevention to help them move past early trauma of tough starts, low incomes, domestic abuse and neglect, unstable housing and family situations.

“A baby born today has a lower life expectancy than three years ago, and that hasn’t happened since World War I,” said one of the keynote speakers, professor of the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver, Sarah Enos Watamura, Ph.D. “Now we have enough pieces to figure out not only what to do to improve outcomes but to do it now. Frankly, income affects the way your brain grows. Higher income means more gray matter. It’s the words kids hear, the things families do with the kids. Every increment of income up to about $50,000 matters. After that – no.”

“Transforming Child, Family, and Caregiver relationships using a Trauma-Informed Lens”, was coordinated by Chaffee County Early Childhood Council Leader Janine Pryor. CCECC organized the conference at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Conference Center with ECHO & Family Center Early Childhood Council of Fremont County. The two organizations have been working together since 2011 to focus on the needs of young children. Then in September 2016, the group became one of only four state applicants to receive a four-year grant from the state of Colorado, designed to improve the social, emotional, behavioral, physical and cognitive outcomes for young children, particularly those experiencing stress.

“By including all participants in the child-parent-caregiver relationship in developing solutions, the entire community becomes better equipped to handle difficult situations early on,” said Pryor. “Together communities grow stronger, healthier and more connected.”

The two-day conference brought together some 75 early childhood professionals from the two counties. Keynote speaker Ayeley Talmi, Ph.D., a recognized leader in early childhood development, is assistant professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and Children’s Hospital of Colorado. She stressed that the impacts of toxic stress on young children can be life-long.

Professor Ayelet Talmi, Ph.D., was the keynote speaker for the May “Launch Together” conference at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort Conference Center.

“The more adversity you have, the worse the outcomes can be, and that includes earning potential, maintaining relationships, jobs … we’re talking about adverse starts that can take 20 years off a child’s life and the trauma can be inter-generational.”

Talmi explained that while most people tend to think that children are oblivious to the things going on around them, the opposite can be true. “Toxic stress is just that – it can be financial, the family environment, it can be addictions, violence, long-term postpartum depression all contribute to toxic stress. Toxic stress changes the brain.”

“We have to understand the baby’s development in terms of their most important relationships … things like the cumulative effect of a caregiver using substances and then neglecting the baby,” explained Talmi.

“The adverse environments and tremendous disparities that happen at the community level include not just poverty,” said Talmi, “but access to health care, home visits to families with new infants, high-quality daycare, the impact of institutional racism.”

She stressed the difference that can be made by building the capacity to manage the stress of the adults around infants and young children, pointing out the role it can play in improving early childhood outcomes, preparing children to enter school and their ability to learn. Most of society she explained, tends to think of the individual child or family situation when what is needed is a community approach.

Blow-up beach balls became the tool to demonstrate that many agencies may not individually have the resources to reduce early childhood toxic stress, but working together, they can make a positive impact.

“It’s system-building. Thinking about the whole child, the whole family, getting the whole agency and the whole community to care. This takes transformation – building across disciplines, working in collaboration as early childhood and health organizations,” she explained. “Frankly, until now funding has worked in silos – this new approach will consider the whole child and leverage the relationships we are building, focusing on sharing resources.”

Talmi led a team exercise to illustrate her point, using a pile of beach balls of different sizes, and case study cards, each with a set of circumstances affecting young children. Soon the beach balls were carried to team tables, and then trade-offs began. It soon became apparent there weren’t enough of the biggest beach balls to go around.

“Having a vision for a common goal of making the lives of young children better can make a difference,” said Talmi. “We don’t all have big beach balls (budgets) but as agencies working together, we can take six smaller beach balls and put them together. One agency may be focused on law enforcement and know nothing about babies’ development. Another may know about health issues, and nothing about transportation. But a situation may arise in which several agencies need to work together to leverage the resources to create systems unique to that community to help these children and those families.”

Conference leaders moved into positive parenting interventions, discussing prenatal interventions. There are some new programs being developed that can improve early childhood outcomes and reduce toxic stress including nutrition, sleep, care and reduction of violence in family settings. Mom Power is an effective attachment-based intervention program for new moms and babies.

Early childhood agencies attending the Launch Together Conference participated in an exercise mirroring the real world: they had to pool their beach balls to have enough resources to meet the needs of their sample case study situations.

Both Chaffee and Fremont counties are considered to be at high relative risk for early childhood mental health outcomes based on county family backgrounds (children living in households below 200 percent of the federal poverty level) and mental health risks. They represent a micro-chasm of conditions in rural counties. With low-risk counties scoring between 11 and 16, Chaffee and Fremont (and dozens of other rural Colorado counties) score at high risk of 21-27.

A brand new program called Seedlings Model of Change is intended to break the link between parental history of toxic stress, passing along the effects of that stress to children. The pilot of this inaugural program has been launched right here in Chaffee and Fremont counties. According to Pryor, the program is seeing some successful statistics related to improving active coping strategies (for managing stress), It has reduced general anxiety, reduces parental responses to stress, improved parent efficacy (which means the parents believe they are the right person for the job of raising their babies) and has improved social connections.

With the state watching their implementation of these new programs in Chaffee County, Pryor says the county’s agencies are up to the task. “The CCECC provides the support [the agencies] need to integrate these programs into their ongoing work,” said Pryor.