Why we're taking on toxic stress in Detroit

I recently had a brag-about-it-on-Facebook kind of day at work.

Here’s what I told my Facebook friends: “Had a truly amazing day that caused me to stretch my thinking in so many different ways... So grateful for my amazing colleagues (both those I work in the same office with, and those working in the same field) whose thought partnership pushed the conversation far beyond my expectations. Pure awesomesauce!

I know what you’re thinking… who uses the word “awesomesauce?”

OK, and maybe also, what could spur me to gush like this?

The answer? That day was the beginning of work in Detroit that I believe can fundamentally change outcomes for our city’s kids.

Let me explain.

The importance of investing in early childhood has been raised time and time again – by researchers, economists, doctors, educators, and more. There is no doubt that children’s cognitive development is being formed and strengthened during these early years.

But what if we’re missing something? What if it’s not just about enrichment activities?

That idea, that there is more to this early brain development, was the premise of a series of meetings, hosted by the Foundation, with the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. This center, led by Jack Shonkoff, has done fascinating research around the science of brain development. Their studies offer some important lessons for the Foundation and its partners.

In essence, research tells us “toxic stress” in the early years can have a tremendous impact on children’s development – disrupting their developing brain architecture, but also hindering other biological systems – that can result in greater risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, depression, and more. Basically, exposure to high levels of stress can fundamentally wire a child in a different way than a child not exposed to those stressors. And that wiring has effects that can last into adulthood.

What does this mean for us? It means that it’s not enough to talk to and read with young children. We need to protect their brains! Caring adults must mitigate the consequences of toxic stress by buffering young children from challenges such as family economic hardship, abuse or neglect, exposure to violence, and parental mental illness or substance abuse. In order to do this, we must invest in parents and communities to ensure that they offer sufficient protection and supports so that young children develop strong, adaptive capacities.

That sounds like a pretty heavy lift. But here’s some good news! All is not lost if we fail to offer this protection in early childhood. Check it out:


Mother Nature offers a second window of time wherein the brain experiences rapid growth in proficiency of executive function and self-regulation skills. These skills support critical behaviors for lifelong success including the ability to focus, set goals and make plans to attain them, follow rules, solve problems, and control impulses.

The science reinforces what we already believe to be true. That the tween and teen years are critical, and positive youth development has a key role in supporting the long-term success of children!

As a Foundation, we’ll be continuing to explore this work in partnership with our early childhood partners, youth development providers, safety stakeholders, and community leaders. We’re hoping that by building our collective capacity to understand the science, we’ll create the space for new innovations that dramatically improve child well-being outcomes in Detroit.

We also made a $50,000 grant in March to the Center for the Study of Social Policy. This grant will fund the planning and design of the “Frontiers of Innovation Fellowship” that will build much-needed capacity on brain science across neighborhood-embedded early childhood and youth development providers. The fellowship will cultivate a network of leaders dedicated to improving youth services using research-based strategies around community change, ultimately driving program quality across the city of Detroit.

One thing we know for sure: this work will require that we are collectively learning, seeing, and doing with neighborhood residents and community stakeholders. It’s the only way that we’ll reap the benefits of this new knowledge and leverage change to benefit children.  We look forward to your thought partnership as we make this journey!

P.S. Think learning about brain science is intimidating? Good news – you can learn the basics by watching three two-minute videos!

Tammie Jones is a program officer at the Skillman Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @tammiejones.



Toxic Stress
Thanks for addressing the issue of stress and brain development. It's often overlooked and yet, it can play a big role in whether a child is able to achieve optimal outcomes. Extra points for using "awesomesauce" in a blog post.

Nicole de Beaufort
5/15/2014 at 1:14 pm

Re: Garland
Thanks for your comment and for reading. We really appreciate it.

Skillman Foundation
5/14/2014 at 8:52 pm

Why we're taking on toxic stress in Detroit
This is great news. Skillman is once again being a trailblazer in Detroit by supporting research and building the capacity of youth service providers.

It amazes me how we as adults continue to fill our children lives with "toxic stress" and expect it not to have a lasting effect on them.

Garland Doyle
5/14/2014 at 6:17 pm