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Working as a therapist for young children at a mental health center in Ottawa, Kaela Byers couldn’t help but notice one thing many of the kids she saw had in common: They’d been dealing with stress since they were toddlers that would throw any adult for a loop.
They lived in homes where perhaps money was short, food was never certain or parents were chronically sick or absent. Byers tried to help them, but soon a question formed in her mind: What if someone had helped them learn to deal with stress years ago?
“I just wondered: Is there something we could be doing better up front?” said Byers, who’s now a Ph.D. student in Kansas University’s School of Social Welfare.
That’s the question she’ll be working to answer during the next two years, now that she’s received one of 15 $50,000 Doris Duke Fellowships for this year from a group at the University of Chicago.
This is the third year that Chapin Hall, a policy research center at Chicago, has awarded the Doris Duke Fellowships for the Promotion of Child Well-Being, which are funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
“The competition is very stiff for these,” said Tom McDonald, a professor and associate dean in KU’s School of Social Welfare who’s serving as a mentor for Byers as part of the program.
The fellowships aim to train researchers who can find new ways to prevent the maltreatment of children. Byers will use it to test a way to find and help kids 3 or younger who are experiencing what she and others in her field call “toxic stress”: stress so strong and frequent that it can permanently affect the way children’s brains work. It can come from a variety of things: poverty, lack of food, homelessness, abuse or neglect, among others.
She first thought about the effect of that kind of stress when she was working with kids in Ottawa. Byers, a Lawrence native and daughter of two KU employees, took that job after earning her bachelor’s degree from KU and a master's degree in social work from the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
Research has shown, she says, that when very young children experience that toxic stress, it can affect how their brain’s regulatory system develops. That may leave them unable to cope with stress later on in their lives, leading to behavior and emotional problems and contributing to issues ranging from depression to heart disease or diabetes when they grow up.
“Little kids who don’t know what to make of a terrible situation — they’re acting out,” Byers said.
Byers is working now with two Kansas Early Head Start programs that serve 22 counties and four Native American reservations — one based in Hiawatha and another based in Girard — to test a system that could help detect toxic stress in children 3 or younger. Until now, her project was funded by state Medicaid dollars.
The program collects information about a child’s environment, and it also assesses the child’s stress by measuring the amount of a hormone called cortisol in their saliva. If a child is experiencing a toxic level of stress, the Early Head Start workers will train their parents or other caregivers to provide the kind of nurturing interactions that can help “buffer” the child from the stress affecting the family.
Meanwhile, the Early Head Start workers will try to help families limit the kinds of problems that might be causing the stress in the first place — something they already try to do.
McDonald said previous research suggests the program could have effects on children and families for years to come, perhaps even preventing the eventual removal of children from their homes.
“The expectation is that there’s an incredible payoff,” McDonald said.
Byers will study the program’s effectiveness and write her dissertation about it. If it’s as effective as she hopes, she wants to push for it to be used across the country.
“We should never give up on helping kids, or people, learn those skills and heal from whatever it is that they’ve faced,” said Byers, who plans to continue her research on toxic stress after she earns her doctorate in two years. “But that early-childhood window is really ideal.”