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Early Childhood Development and Adversity/Crisis

Learn how adults can help children cope with stress and adversity.


All babies and toddlers experience some degree of stress in their life, but they are very resilient and are really good at adapting to and coping with changes and stress. However, if a young child is exposed to change or stress that is overwhelming, or that happens over a long period of time, it can impact the way that they learn and develop. Having support and care from an adult can help children positively respond to stress and adversity, and prevent or reduce the potential negative effects.

What Stress or Change Infants and Young Might Experience?

There are different levels of change and stress that young children can be exposed to, and they all experience some amount of stress on a daily basis. For example, getting vaccinations or falling over and cutting their knee. A little bit of stress in the early years can be good for development. Although these experiences can be a bit upsetting for babies and toddlers, small amounts of intermittent stress help them learn how to cope with everyday challenges and how to process their feelings.

Unfortunately, some infants and young children face more long-term and extreme types of adversity and may even be exposed to severe crises. These experiences can negatively impact young children by disrupting their sense of routine and structure, which can make them feel vulnerable and anxious.

But, having care and support from an adult caregiver helps children to deal with stress and adversity. In the next step, we will explore how we can help protect children from the negative impacts of stress on their developing brain, and later physical and mental health.

We have attached some resources to this step if you are worried about a child who may be experiencing neglect or maltreatment.

Link to Save The Children

What Are the Implications of Adversity in Ecd?

Both positive and negative experiences shape how a child develops. Positive experiences, like having responsive and dependable care from an adult, provide children with a solid foundation for healthy physical and mental development throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Babies’ first experiences of stress are usually interpretations of their parent or caregiver’s stress. A stressed adult may be less responsive and sensitive to a baby’s needs and may find it difficult to provide a sense of security and routine. This can affect the quality and availability of playful and social interactions that are key for SEL. As an adult with children in your life, it’s important that you take care of your own health and wellbeing (for more about this, see Week 5). By doing so, you will be more able to provide children with support and comfort even during times of stress.

Children who don’t have responsive and supportive care from an adult may not have a buffer in times of stress. Repeated exposure to stress and adversity, without care and support from an adult, can interfere with normal brain development. It can make children more fearful and make it difficult for them to process feelings associated with stressful situations, such as anger and frustration. Negative and stressful experiences in early childhood are also associated with an increased likelihood of depression, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other long-term health conditions in adulthood.

Even though children are vulnerable to the effects of adversity, they are very resilient. Although early exposure to stress may predict a higher likelihood of negative outcomes later in life, it doesn’t mean that these outcomes are set in stone. Adults can promote positive experiences, provide security and comfort, and help protect children from experiencing overwhelming stress.

It is also worth keeping in mind that not all children are the same and they won’t all respond to stress in the same way. Some children may be more reserved and cautious when faced with a challenge. Others may be naturally more confident and self-assured. Their internal responses and the responses of the adults and community around them can all contribute to resilience in the face of changes and stress.


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Coping with Changes: Social-Emotional Learning Through Play

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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