Skills for Life: Stress and Brain Development in Early Childhood

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Apr 2021
Learning to cope with disappointments and overcoming obstacles is part of growing up. By conquering some challenges, children develop resilience. Such normal stressors may include initiating a new activity or separation from parents during preschool hours. However, when the challenges in early childhood are intensified by important stressors happening outside their own lives, they may start to worry about the safety of themselves and their families. This may cause chronic stress, which interferes with their emotional, cognitive, and social development. In developing country contexts, it is especially hard to capture promptly the effects of stressors related to the COVID-19 pandemic on childrens cognitive and socioemotional development. In this note, we draw on the literature on the effect of stress on brain development and examine data from a recent survey of households with young children carried out in four Latin American countries to offer suggestions for policy responses. We suggest that early childhood and education systems play a decisive role in assessing and addressing childrens mental health needs. In the absence of forceful policy responses on multiple fronts, the mental health outcomes may become lasting.