October 5, 2017
Project NeuroNurture Grants $2.4 million for
Infant/Toddler Toxic Stress Intervention Program
Investment across 35 Kansas counties leverages proven short-term,
cortisol-regulating intervention for families facing adversity
● Brain research links adverse childhood experiences to toxic levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol, resulting in devastating effects on childhood development
● Proven short-term early intervention called Attachment Bio-behavioral Catch-up, or ABC, regulates infant/toddler cortisol to prevent developmental delays and compromised health
● Project NeuroNurture invests $2.4 million to implement ABC program across 35 Kansas counties through April 2020
● Short-term, science-based early childhood interventions have the potential for large, long-term savings for Kansas taxpayers
Hutchinson, Kan. -- Nurture does not come naturally to all parents. When a family faces extreme financial and emotional adversity, parents can struggle to provide the comfort and care their babies and toddlers require.
A growing body of research on brain development is connecting these adverse childhood experiences to toxic levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol, which can have devastating effects on a young child’s growth and development--including cycles of behavior challenges, school struggles, and troubled adulthood. Now a pilot program called Project NeuroNurture is implementing a proven early intervention to help regulate elevated infant/toddler cortisol levels--in just 10 weekly home visits.
Aimed at new parents and caregivers of 6-to-24-month-old children in adverse family circumstances, the Attachment and Bio-behavioral Catch-up (ABC) intervention method consists of home visits by a parent coach. These sessions help parents learn play-based strategies that build attachment—and in turn, regulate cortisol levels in infants and toddlers.
“We’ve known for years that very early interventions pay dividends in the long term,” said Kim Moore, President of United Methodist Health Ministry Fund (UMHMF), a funding partner for the pilot. “Our challenge now is to find the most effective way to achieve the greatest outcome, and ABC is an excellent example of a science-based, proven program that is very short in duration, yet very powerful in results.”
Project NeuroNurture aims to serve disadvantaged families over a three-year period across 35 Kansas counties. The $2.4 million investment is underwritten by United Methodist Health Ministry Fund (UMHMF), Kansas Health Foundation, Wyandotte Health Foundation, REACH Healthcare Foundation, and Hutchinson Community Foundation. University of Delaware and Kansas University Endowment Association are receiving grants for program training and evaluation.
Grants are directed to five sites, which are incorporating the ABC method into their existing infant/toddler home visit programs as a means to speed implementation and create synergy with existing staff and resources.
● Horizons Mental Health Center: Reno County
● Rainbows United: Sedgwick and Butler Counties
● Russell Child Development Center (Southwest Kansas): Greeley, Wichita, Scott, Lane, Ness, Hamilton, Kearny, Finney, Hodgeman, Stanton, Haskell, Gray, Ford, Morton, Stevens, Seward, Meade, and Clark Counties
● Project Eagle – University of Kansas Medical Center: Wyandotte County
● Northwest Kansas Council on Substance Abuse: Cheyenne, Rawlins, Decatur, Norton, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, Graham, Wallace, Logan, Gove, and Trego counties.
Infant Brains on Fire: The Problem of Toxic Cortisol Levels
At normal levels, cortisol is a useful and beneficial hormone. It stirs us to wake, alerts us to danger, and helps heighten our senses and speed our reaction time to perceived threats in our environment. Normal cortisol levels decrease during the course of the day.
However, when cortisol levels remain constantly elevated, the hormone can produce devastating effects on a child’s development. According to a Stanford University study, high cortisol levels can decrease the size of the hippocampus—a brain structure important in memory processing and emotion. They are also linked to decreased immune function and high blood pressure.
More importantly, children with toxic cortisol levels are more likely to suffer from depression, PTSD, and anxiety; display antisocial behavior; and are at increased risk for drug and alcohol abuse. These resulting behavioral, developmental and emotional issues create difficulties in learning, and produce overall compromised health and wellbeing in children and adults--the treatment of which often requires burdensome investment from taxpayers.
Child Nurture as a Science: Attachment Bio-Behavioral Catch-up (ABC)
Surprisingly, the answer to infant and toddler cortisol regulation is not medication, but nurture.
Evidence shows that caring and responsive relationships with adults early in life can prevent the developmental delays and chronic health concerns caused by continuously elevated cortisol levels.
Developed by researchers at University of Delaware, the Attachment and Bio-behavioral Catch-up program, or ABC, teaches caregivers of children between 6 and 24 months old play-based strategies that build attachment--which in turn help regulate their baby’s cortisol levels. Throughout each session, the parent coach observes interactions between parent and child and provides feedback on behaviors that relate to the intervention targets. Sessions are captured on video, so that parent coaches can highlight parents’ strengths, weaknesses, and behavioral changes.
Dr. Stevie Schein, researcher with the Infant Caregiver Project at the University of Delaware, highlights one example of ABC’s success. A mother living in a motel with her 8-month-old and 2-year-old had a difficult time interacting with her children amid financial and emotional strain. Through the ABC program, she was able to improve the amount of positive interactions she had with her children.
“She was playing with them, she was smiling, and when they got upset, she was sympathetic and would respond in a nurturing way,” Schein said. “At the end of ten weeks, mom still lived in the hotel, but her children’s worlds were entirely changed.”
A unique component of this program is the testing of cortisol levels via saliva samples, collected from child participants at the start and end of the program. Researchers at the University of Kansas will evaluate the samples, which are expected to demonstrate the same cortisol regulating effects seen in prior ABC implementations across the country.
“We’re able to prove this program is helping with cortisol regulation. Anytime you can back up the work you’re doing with scientific evidence, it’s very exciting,” said Moore.
The ABC intervention model meets Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) criteria for “evidence-based early childhood home visiting service delivery model” and is rated 1 on the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare scientific rating scale, indicating that ABC has one of the strongest bodies of research evidence among those rated.
Return on Infants (ROI): A Smart Investment for Kansas
Science-based, short-term early interventions have the potential for large, long-term savings for Kansas taxpayers. Research by the Heckman Institute reports that high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13% per year return on investment. These gains are realized through better outcomes in education, health, social behaviors, and employment.
“Most people understand and value the investment in early childhood programs,” said Moore. “But if we can be even more strategic with our funds, the savings for Kansans long-term could be incredible. We have an opportunity to make a major shift in the lives of these children and ultimately in our future workforce and tax base.”
Project NeuroNurture program leaders will be contacting Kansas legislators, business leaders, and leaders of the mental health and early education communities over the coming months to advocate for investment in short-term, early interventions like ABC other early childhood programs as a means for improving the Kansas economy.
For more information on Project NeuroNurture, the ABC program, or how to get involved, visit www.neuronurtureks.org.
United Methodist Health Ministry Fund