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Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are prevalent and potentially devastating. Childhood trauma creates toxic stress, which can interrupt healthy development and lead to epigenetic changes that have gradual, but damaging consequences on lifelong health and well-being. While these consequences are common, they are not inevitable. Short of preventing ACEs before they occur, best practices recommend early intervention strategies that mitigate ACE risk factors before they contribute to adverse outcomes.
Early interventions focus on youth and community resilience building. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University defines resilience as “the ability to overcome serious hardship.” Resilience is built through the development and introduction of protective factors in a child’s life and is critical to their ability to navigate through trauma and other stress-inducing events. While past research posited that toxic stress permanently affects brain architecture, recent evidence suggests cortisol regulation in children is responsive to psychosocial interventions. Research shows that, through the introduction and development of protective factors, children can not only withstand adversity, but also recover from it.
Resilience is often visualized as a seesaw, where protective factors on one side counterbalance risk factors on the other. The Search Institute’s Developmental Assets Framework has identified 40 protective factors that promote resilience and foster healthy development in youth. The framework distinguishes between external and internal assets. External assets refer to the relationships (e.g. family support) and opportunities (e.g. youth programs) derived from families, schools, and communities. Internal assets are social-emotional strengths (e.g. planning and decision making), values (e.g. honesty), and commitments (e.g. achievement motivation) that are nurtured within young people. According to Middletown High School Principal Carmela Cotter, “The more assets a student has, the more ability they have to address risk in their lives.”
The goal of Middlelayers’ Comprehensive Social Support System (CS3) is to build marginalized youth resilience to ACEs. To accomplish this objective, the CS3 facilitates youth access to external assets, including social supports and opportunities. The U.S. Department of Education defines social supports as positive, constructive relationships that youth have with peers, adults, and communities that provide, “safety, structure, motivation, nurturing, and guidance to allow youth to explore, test, learn, grow, and contribute.” Opportunities are vehicles that allow youth to develop important skills and competencies and nurture their interests and talents. These protective factors, in turn, foster internal assets. Finally, the CS3 increases youth access to services, including public welfare, health, school, and recreational programs. Social, health, and other community services alleviate the immediate needs and address barriers that can prevent youth from moving forward.