Risky business: Adverse childhood experiences and pre-K eligibility

By Megan Carolan

Adverse childhood experiences (ACES) can have serious long-term consequences for kids. That’s the message in a recent brief from ICS Senior Fellow Janice Gruendel, one of a series highlighting the importance of executive function and early brain development. The first five years of a child’s life are ones of tremendous brain growth, when children learn to walk, talk, sing, and ask ever more “Why?” questions as they explore their environments. However, the same plasticity that allows for this incredible growth in knowledge also means that negative experiences can shape the brain for the long haul. ACES can vary from abuse and neglect of all forms to violence in the home, parental divorce, and parental substance abuse, among others.

All families and children will experience adversity at some point; there’s even research from the Harvard Center for the Developing Child that shows positive stress can be a good thing. But as Dr. Gruendel notes, frequent ACES have negative consequences: “[A]s just one example, on average 30% of all children under age three who experience three or more ACEs are likely to experience developmental delays. As exposure increases, the risk of developmental delays in the first years of life increases dramatically.”

So what do these ACES – experience that happen in the home – have to do with early childhood education systems? Everything. Dr. Gruendel explains:

“All families will need some level of access to a predictable set of services and supports as they raise their young children. These will surely include services that provide for basic needs, the delivery of preventative health care, early child care and early learning, and age-appropriate screenings….Families with young children who live in circumstances of adversity, trauma, or toxic stress will need greater access to a larger array of programs.”

Many early childhood programs currently take ACES into account as a risk factor for program eligibility. While research has shown all children can benefit from quality pre-K, programs with limited resources often choose to target their available slots to the children who are most “at-risk” of not being ready for school and thus most likely to benefit from an intervention. A recent paper I co-wrote with Lori Connors-Tadros for the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) explores the common risk factors used in state-funded pre-K programs, one of the largest sources of preschool for American children. For example, the table below looks at which factors besides income level as most frequently used in determining eligibility for state-funded pre-K programs.

Common risk factors used to determine eligibility in state-funded pre-K

Common risk factors used to determine eligibility in state-funded pre-K

The paper goes beyond what programs are currently doing to explore just how strong the research literature is on each of the most common risk factors for eligibility. It also provides recommendations for what programs should keep in mind in developing eligibility criteria for programs. Of course, enrolling children who have experienced ACES in a preschool program is not enough – policymakers must ensure the particular needs of these children are addressed and work to lessen the prevalence of ACS for our most vulnerable residents.