Building Strong Wisconsin Families: Evidence-Based Approaches to Address Toxic Stress in Children

Early childhood is a time of both risk and opportunity for brain development. Positive and negative experiences, especially prenatally through age 3, build the foundation for future well-being and success. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, and household challenges can have lasting effects if children do not have a responsive adult caregiver to buffer them from stress. If prolonged or frequent, these experiences can cause toxic stress that damages a child’s body and brain. Toxic stress has been associated with physical and mental health conditions, low educational attainment, and poor workforce performance.

In Wisconsin, 57% of adults report having at least one ACE, with 14% reporting four or more. Among low-income Wisconsin mothers, 85% report having at least one ACE and about 40% report being physically abused. Understandably, state policymakers are interested in preventing and mitigating the effect of ACEs, increasing family well-being, and reducing the costs to state health care, education, child welfare, and correctional systems.

At this seminar, you’ll learn how toxic stress affects the developing brain and body, and hear the latest discoveries on the changes that take place in a new parent’s brain to support positive parenting—and the implications when these changes are diminished due to a health condition or trauma. The speakers also will discuss evidence-based policy options such as home visiting programs and efforts that address health screening and treatment, family economic security, parental stress, and family protective factors.

Report (pdf) Executive Summary (pdf)


The Impact of Early Experiences on Brain and Behavioral Development

by Nathan Fox
Professor of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology & Director of the Child Development Lab, University of Maryland

Video (YouTube) PowerPoint (pdf) Transcript

Scaling Up Home Visiting in Wisconsin: A Two-Generation Strategy to Address Trauma

by Joshua Mersky
Professor of Social Work & Co-Director of the Institute for Child and Family Well-Being, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Video (YouTube) PowerPoint (pdf) Report Chapter (pdf) Transcript Issue Brief

State Strategies to Prevent and Mitigate the Consequences of Toxic Stress in Childhood

by Meghan McCann
Senior Policy Specialist, Children and Families Program, National Conference of State Legislatures

Video (YouTube) PowerPoint (pdf) Report Chapter (pdf) Transcript Issue Brief

Early Experiences Matter: The Effect of Childhood Adversity on the Brain and Body

by Sarah Enos Watamura
Director, Child Health and Development Lab & Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Denver

Video (YouTube) PowerPoint (pdf) Report Chapter (pdf) Transcript Issue Brief

Additional Materials

  • Home Visiting Services for At-Risk Women and Families in Wisconsin (Report Chapter, pdf)
    by Charles Morgan, Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau
  • Glossary
  • Continuing the Conversation takeaways