Policies and Practices to Prevent Toxic Stress


(Arti Freeman) #1

Research strongly suggests that the best way to combat the effects of toxic stress is through supportive relationships. When a child has a supportive relationship with a caring adult that helps buffer the stress, the damaging effects of toxic stress can be reversed and prevented

The Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University, highlights a set of 3 design principles that policymakers and practitioners in many different sectors can use to improve outcomes for children and families. The research states that that in order to maximize effectiveness policies and services should:

  1. Support responsive relationships for children and adults.

  2. Strengthen core life skills.

  3. Reduce sources of stress in the lives of children and families


Below are examples on how to apply each design principle in policy and practice, according to the research:

1. Support responsive relationships for children and adults. Responsive relationships buffers a child from stress, promotes healthy brain development, and builds resiliency.

Policy Example: Develop policies that promote frequent contact between children in out-of-home care and their parents and siblings, or minimize changes of placement for children in out-of-home care.

Practice Example: Provide workers in service programs with enough time to develop relationships with the people they are expected to help

2. Strengthen core life skills. These core life skills are referred to in the research as executive functions and regulation skills. We also know them as social and emotional skills, which are critical for learning and development.

Policy Example: Develop policies that recognize executive functioning and self-regulation as critical skills children need to succeed.

Practice Example: Focus on small, incremental steps with frequent feedback.

3. Reduce sources of stress in the lives of children and families. Other situations that cause toxic stress in children include community violence, deep poverty, and substance abuse.

Policy Example: Reduce barriers to families accessing basic supports with special attention to the needs of children during periods of severe hardship or homelessness.

Practice Example: Provide services in well-regulated, welcoming environments.

Do you have specific examples you can share in terms of how you have applied the 3 design principles in policy and practice?


Here is one resource I came across by Best Start for service providers on working with families living in poverty.

Do you have questions on ACEs and Toxic Stress? Ask Dr. Jean HERE