Healthy Connections a Key to Future Success for Children

Left-right; Alycia Blackwell-Pittman, senior Human Services Policy Advisor for the NC Department of Health and Human Servcies; Betty Rintoul, executive director for Encouraging Connections; Aurora Boyer, Orange County Head Start/Early Head Start Home Based Coordinator; Cindy Watkins president of the North Carolina Partnership for Children.

Left to right: Alycia Blackwell-Pittman, Betty Rintoul, Aurora Boyer and Cindy Watkins

March 1, 2019 – For a child, strong, positive relationships with caring adults can pave the way for success in school and life. The importance of those connections were discussed by a panel at the North Carolina Early Childhood Action Plan Summit, held in Raleigh on Feb. 27.

“Usually when we think of child safety, we often think about physical safety,” said facilitator Alycia Blackwell-Pittman, DHHS Senior Human Services Policy Advisor. “But we know that social and emotional safety is just as important.” 

Panelist Betty Rintoul, Executive Director of Encouraging Connections, spoke about stressors. “If you have harsh, threatening, or inconsistent caregiving, you develop a brain primed with toxic stress to be defensive and self-focused. We grow brains for the environments that we’re in.”

More than 130,000 children, mostly aged birth through 5, were assessed for abuse or neglect in North Carolina during fiscal year 2017-18. When children face this sort of adversity, their brain structurecan change.

According to Rintoul, it’s critical for babies and young children to have positive connections with adults. While the emotional center of the brain is present at birth, the thinking portion grows out from that emotional center, building a person’s executive functioning skills. Adults must meet babies and young children on their level to develop those skills. A consistent, caring, nurturing adult can help a baby or young child learn to care about other people and better regulate emotions. 

“It’s as important to a young child to have that emotional connection to trigger brain development, as it is for them to have food or shelter,” said Rintoul.

Programs like Early Head Start help families create those positive connections. Early Head Start uses professionals to conduct in-home visits to help strengthen parent-child relationships in their natural environment and offers other comprehensive child development and family support services. These services help parents build stronger relationships with their infants and toddlers, foster healthy family functioning, and support the emotional health of the both parent and child. 

“You have to keep in mind all the mental domains of a child,” said panelist Aurora Boyer, Orange County Head Start/Early Head Start Home Based Coordinator. “There has to be an infrastructure. A family has to have a system of supports.” 

Smart Start builds upon Early Head Start to prepare children for success in school. The network helps working parents pay for child care, improves the quality of child care, and provides health and family support services in all 100 counties. Smart Start also engages local leaders to discover adverse community conditions, then work at their root causes through support, group parenting classes, therapies and interventions.

“We bring these leaders together to think about how they can improve the soil these children are raised on,” said panelist Cindy Watkins, President, North Carolina Partnership for Children, which administers Smart Start.

These programs work to improve connections because there’s a known link between social and emotional wellbeing, and cognitive learning.

“Social and emotional competence is a predictor of school success,” said Rintoul. “It’s a better predictor of school success than memory, language, parental education levels.”

“It’s all about children being healthy and ready for school,” said Watkins.

UNC-TV broadcast the panel's discussion and a recording is available.

Ryan Hill