Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The game-changing power of love

By Kali Thorne Ladd
Chief Executive Officer
Children’s Institute

For many working in the early childhood field, we understand the need to offer our youngest children nurturing and caring environments that stimulate learning and healthy development. The neuroscience of brain development helps us understand why. In the first year of life, 1 million neural connections are made in the brain every minute. The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are most critical to brain development and social-emotional well-being. Ninety-five percent of brain development happens in the first five years of a child’s life.

Neuroplasticity is greatest in our younger years, so our ability to scaffold our brain toward resiliency starts early and has a lasting impact. But many things can get in the way of optimal development for young children. Abuse, racism, and poverty can cause stress and trauma. Being bullied in school or elsewhere can create significant challenges and undermine a sense of belonging. The lack of caring adults in these circumstances can leave children feeling unsafe and insecure. Living through a global pandemic or under the constant threat of racial or school violence can compound the stress response in children.

When a child experiences stressful things, especially over a prolonged period, there is great danger that the stress can register in the brain and body as trauma. When this happens, it has an extremely negative impact. The trauma scars reshape a child’s brain. It disrupts the foundations of memory, decision-making, and emotional stability. Later in life, these traumatic wounds can fuel the fires of addiction and mental illness and cast shadows over the path of learning and growth. Trauma disrupts everything.

But there is one important research and data point that offers hope. When children experience hard things, the one thing that can help them overcome trauma and develop resiliency is love. Loving, caring relationships are the most important factor in building sturdy brain architecture and turning stress into resiliency. This is game-changing. It’s something we can all understand. Each one of us is wired for love. We all need it, and children have the greatest opportunity to thrive when immersed in it.


Kali Thorne Ladd (Photo via NNPA)

But what does this mean for people and organizations in the early childhood field? For teachers, policymakers and advocates? For leaders of organizations or our local, state, and federal government? It means we have a moral imperative to create the best possible conditions for learning, love and growth for our youngest children. The good news is that we have plenty of examples and efforts to build from. Now we simply need the commitment to act in the best interest of our children.

Here are some next steps:

• Visualize an ecosystem of love, care, and learning for children that begins before they are born and is designed to help them grow and thrive.

• Prioritize giving all children access to loving, caring adults inside and outside of the home, understanding that love is not just nice to have, it’s an essential need.

• Create dedicated funding streams for the expansion of early childhood programs and services at local, state, and federal levels.

• Ensure public access to quality preschool programs that promote early learning and health development while simultaneously strengthening the supply of childcare and the needs of working parents and families.

• Ensure that policymaking at all levels centers on young children and their families, including housing, healthcare, behavioral health, law enforcement, economic development, and education.

Now, it can be overwhelming to think about changing these complex systems. But there is a way to simplify things and for each of us to commit to doing what’s right for children in our world today, right now. Reach into your soul and heart and imagine your power to give the gift of love and resiliency to a child. Maybe it’s a child you know, a classroom you’re familiar with, a community or church that is part of your life. When you look inside, know that you can be an ambassador for love, an ambassador for helping children thrive in a community of love. It takes a lot of love to heal the world, but only takes a little to help a child know they belong, that they are cared for and safe, that they are loved and that they can heal. When we do that, we can change the world with one act of love followed by another, and another.

Kali Thorne Ladd leads the Children’s Institute, which leverages research, practice, policy, and advocacy to shift systems toward justice for families so that all of Oregon’s children, prenatal to grade 5, have access to opportunity.


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