Early Childhood and Toxic Stress

BIA and Early Childhood Education

By Tania Blackburn, February 21 2022

With a very young mean population age and the lowest marriage rates in the country (U.S. Census), out-of-wed-lock births in Indian Country continue to increase.  Correlating with high levels of poverty (Sandefur and Liebler 1996), Native American families appear to be among the most unstable and fractured.  Further, American Indian children continue to be disproportionately represented in the child welfare system and perform among the lowest racial groups in academic achievement (Congress 1978; Disproportionality of Child Welfare Fact Sheet 2019; Rampey, et al. 2021).

The Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native American Children is tasked with finding ways to improve a series of outcomes for American Indian families and children, one of which is early childhood education (ASWS Commission 2020). Many of the recommendations of the experts to the commission are along the lines of those recommended nationally. Thus, the following articles and perspectives contribute to the policy study of federal Indian policy, specifically early childhood education and possibly even child welfare.

Jennifer A. Rippner (2016) outlined the major agencies and departments that play key roles in early childhood education in this country and the various funding silos that often overlap or present conflicting accountability priorities in providing education to very young children (p. 61-62). Moreover, it is not clear if government can or ought to provide early education programs in either universal or targeted forms because the findings of various research studies have yet to determine economic justifications or desirable outcomes that can be broadly implemented (Rippner 2016, 73-74). While some evidence seems to affirm positive outcomes for high-risk families in high-quality early childhood education programs, the benefits tend to diminish over time (Rippner 2016, 67). However, other research based on meta-analysis suggests that early childhood education is correlated with lower rates of high school attrition, teenage pregnancy, and criminality (Rippner 2016, 67).

Rippner (2016) asserts that while there are many stakeholders interested in early childhood education policy, developments in neuroscience are contributing to the discussion, advocating for early interventions to support cognitive and brain development in babies and toddlers (Rippner 2016, 65-66). But are families or programs better able to deliver these interventions?

Jennifer Roback Morse (2009) is an economist, author, and a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover. In Love and Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village (2009), Morse explains that self-regulating, responsible, and trust-worthy citizens are necessary for a free society, and that the family is the place where that is cultivated from the beginning of a child’s life (p. 7). Morse and her husband adopted a Romanian boy as an infant shortly before giving birth to their first biological child, which presented the trained researchers with an opportunity to observe how early interventions affected development. For the adopted boy, detachment disorder emerged as a result of his first months of life in a Romanian orphanage where he received very little human contact and love (Morse 2009, 14-15). Children who are deprived of these first interventions of love and trust are more likely to develop attachment disorders which inhibits trust and self-regulating behavior; only responding to punishments and rewards instead of intrinsic internal controls (Morse 2009, 15). Morse also noted that later in life, the child with detachment disorder tends to perform poorly in academics as delayed gratification and self-monitoring behaviors are lacking (Morse 2009, 15).

Morse (2009) goes beyond her own anecdotes and brings in research and quantitative measures to build her case—that no institution, program, or alternative arrangement can adequately replace a nurturing family and parents. According to Morse (2009) early education and childcare programs do not empower women, but only “mask” their own neediness—for the father, provider, and protector—of their own predicament of motherhood (p. 108, 112-113).

Additionally, children outside of biological, two-parent homes are more likely to have academic problems, disciplinary, behavioral, and emotional problems and are at higher risk for abuse and neglect (Morse 2009, 106-107, 109). Morse (2009) opines that many social policies rest on a materialistic premise and “the increasing institutionalization of child rearing has transferred authority from the relatively inarticulate but committed parent to the articulate but uncommitted expert” (p. 184). Families are the basis of society and social policies ought to serve this vital component of society instead of trying to replace it.

Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child was established in 2006 and provides research and policy suggestions to policy makers (Rippner 2016, 66). Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. spoke to the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children, specifically for the early childhood education hearing last week (ASWS 2022). While this commission is largely a stakeholder advocacy commission instead of a serious inquiry into the “best practices” that help American Indian families and children, the experts that are invited to speak have some interesting perspectives. Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff et al. (2021) presented one of his latest research projects on “toxic stress” and how long-tern stress exposure can have harmful effects on infants and children by inhibiting brain development, cognitive function and affecting long-term physical health (Shonkoff, Slopen and Williams 2021, 116-117). Infants that are exposed to stressful environments may develop biological processes that have long-term effects such as depression, poor health, and accelerated aging processes (Shonkoff, Slopen and Williams 2021, 117). Whether these stressful environments come from unstable or stressful families and homes or childcare facilities and/or a stressful lifestyle, preventative measures will vary.

For example, children that experience the stress of “poverty and/or unsupportive caregiving” are more likely to develop obesity and elevated blood pressure (Shonkoff, Slopen and Williams 2021, 117). Additionally, meta-analysis of studies of adults found a relationship between childhood trauma and key inflammatory markers related to health problems (Shonkoff, Slopen and Williams 2021, 117). Thus, the researchers assert that the implications of these studies suggest a relationship between harsh treatment in childhood with long-term physiological harm (Shonkoff, Slopen and Williams 2021, 117).

While it is unclear whether government-funded early childhood education programs are justified either economically or socially, it is clear that early childhood care and education are critical not only for society but for individual children. High-risk populations may benefit from an intensive “wrap-around” program that provides a better environment for learning and stability for infants and young children, but this is not so for all families. Single-parent households necessarily depend on outside resources whether the child is cared for in the home or outside the home. However, whether this support is in early childhood education programs outside the home or providing cash and other benefits for the parent to provide care for their child at home is debatable (Troller-Renfree, et al. 2022).  Although the traditional, loving family is the safest and best place for children, in the wake of changing values and priorities in our society, experts and policy makers scramble to find a policy solution that is growing more complex and controversial. While federal funding may provide additional resources for early education interventions, the needs and particulars of early childhood education require a decentralized and targeted approach.


ASWS Commission. 2020. Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children Framework for the Commission. CNC Framework Memo, Washington D.C.: Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children.

ASWS. 2022. “Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children.” January 28. Accessed February 3, 2022. https://commissiononnativechildren.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/CNC-Virtual-Hearing_Early-Childhood-Development_ZOOM_RawUneditedTranscript_01.28.2022.pdf.

Congress, U.S. 1978. Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. Accessed 11 19, 2020. https://www.tribal-institute.org/lists/chapter21_icwa.htm.

  1. “Disproportionality of Child Welfare Fact Sheet.” org.October. Accessed August 18, 2020. https://www.nicwa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/2019-AIAN-Disproportionality-in-Child-Welfare-FINAL.pdf.

Morse, Jennifer Roback. 2009. Love and Economics. San Marcos: Ruth Institute Books.

Rampey, B. D., S. C. Faircloth, R. P. Whorton, and J. Deaton. 2021. National Indian Education Study 2019. U.S. Department of Education Study, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Rippner, Jennifer A. 2016. The American Education Policy Landscape. New York: Routledge.

Sandefur, Gary D., and Carolyn A. Liebler. 1996. Changing Numbers, Changing Needs: American Indian Demography and Public Health. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Shonkoff, Jack P., Natalie Slopen, and David R. Williams. 2021. “Early Childhood Adversity, Toxic Stress, and the Impacts of Racism on the Foundations of Health.” Annual Review of Public Health 42 115-134.

Troller-Renfree, Sonya V., Molly A. Costanzo, Greg J. Duncan, Katherine Magnuson, Lisa A. Gennetian, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Nathan A. Fox, and Kimberly G. Noble. 2022. “The Impact of a Poverty Reeducation Intervention on Infant Brain Activity.” PNAS. February 1. Accessed 3 2022, February . https://www.pnas.org/content/119/5/e2115649119.

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