“He was very angry. He was scratching his face, kicking, and screaming,” Carrie Giddings, a preschool teacher, said of one of her students during his first days in her class at Kruse Elementary School in northern Colorado.
The boy’s father had been in and out of jail, Giddings said. She thinks the 3-year-old had witnessed abuse at home before he enrolled in preschool at Kruse. His family was poor. For a while, they had lived with relatives, unable to afford their own place. “Everything that could happen to a kid, he’d had it all,” Giddings said, asking that the child’s name not be used. “He was a year and a half behind.”
A child like this boy will have a tough road ahead. Research has shown that unrelenting stress at a young age, known as toxic stress, causes long-lasting brain damage. The worse the damage, the harder it is for children to pay attention, absorb new information, or trust adults—all skills critical for success in school—as they get older.
In fact, the fate of all children is largely determined by their first years on this planet. Forming healthy relationships with adults early on lays the foundation for future healthy relationships. Exposure to language through stories, songs, and conversations sets the stage for academic achievement. Playing outside to master gross motor skills; creating art to master fine motor skills; pretending to be a doctor, chef, or firefighter to learn teamwork; building a tower of blocks to learn basic physics lessons—all of these activities are critical preparation for a successful school and adult life.