Phil Fisher: The Realities of Stress on Children - Early Learning Nation

Phil Fisher: The Realities of Stress on Children

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the Society for Research and Development’s biennial meeting, where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

Children experience stress in big and small ways, from violence to poverty to simply a lack of resources. Further, the stress can come from inside the home or out in the community. But as Philip A. Fisher, PhD, the Philip H. Knight Chair, University of Oregon, explains: “The effects of stress are real – emotionally and physically – and research helps guide parents, caregivers and practitioners on what they can do.” Filmed for Early Learning Nation’s Mobile Studio at the Society for Research in Child Development’s biennial meeting in Baltimore, MD, on March 22, 2019. #SRCD19


Chris Riback:                 Phil, thanks for coming by to the ELN studio.

Phil Fisher:                    My pleasure.

Chris Riback:                 We appreciate your time.

Phil Fisher:                    Glad to be here.

Chris Riback:                 Much of your work focuses on stress that can occur in infancy and childhood.

Phil Fisher:                    Correct.

Chris Riback:                 Now I am a practicing parent, and I’ve gone through three of those situations.

Phil Fisher:                    So you’re an expert.

Chris Riback:                 No, I’m failing! This is why I want to talk with you. I need the help, but I’m assuming it’s not my stress that you’re focused on, it’s the events around the kids. So talk to me about that. How do you define stressful experiences for children and infants?

Phil Fisher:                    I think one of the most useful ways to define stress in children has to do with the extent to which people talk about it getting under the skin. That is, there are lots of things in the environment or in the world of the child that can affect the child’s wellbeing. Some of them are things that are outside of the family. Things like poverty and lack of access to resources and neighborhood violence and crime.

Phil Fisher:                    So we think about stress as the chronic activation of these systems in the absence of the kind of supportive relationships that I’m sure you provide to your children, and that others … It doesn’t have to just be parents, but that meaningful adults in children’s lives can provide. Because especially very early in life, children don’t have the capacity to bring those systems back into line themselves.

Chris Riback:                 That’s what I was going to ask, “Are children’s and infants’ brains able to adapt to stress? Are there changes that occur in the brain when they experience persistent stress? What’s the biology?” You just mentioned it.

Phil Fisher:                    One way to think about it is that the systems that exist, and they’re not just in the brain, they’re also bodily systems that have to do with immune system functioning and metabolizing energy in order to help mobilize responses to stress, that those things are all very effective at dealing with short term kinds of situations in which those kinds of responses are necessary.

Phil Fisher:                    The challenge becomes when those systems are activated really on a continuous basis. We’re not very well set up by evolution to be able to deal with very long term, chronic stress.

Chris Riback:                 I assume you talk as well with parents and teachers?

Phil Fisher:                    Of course. Yes.

Chris Riback:                 What do you talk with parents about? Is there anything practical-

Phil Fisher:                    Absolutely.

Chris Riback:                 … so tell me.

Phil Fisher:                    Again, the activation of these systems is one piece of the puzzle, right? And certainly under conditions where stress is ongoing, which occurs in many people’s lives, and is certainly distributed across the economic spectrum. It’s not just in economic conditions of poverty. Lots of people have stress in their lives.

Phil Fisher:                    But the other side of the equation is the extent to which adults in the child’s life by being supportive and responsive and available for the child in nurturing, really do help to buffer the child against those kinds of experiences. And what the research is showing consistently is that where you see elevations in things like stress hormones, where you see brain changes that are the result of chronic stress, the presence of supportive, responsive caregiving is the single biggest thing that brings those bodily systems back more into balance.

Chris Riback:                 Tell me about the FIND video coaching intervention.

Phil Fisher:                    I would love to. We spend a lot of time developing programs to support adults including parents, but also other caregivers in children’s lives. People don’t love to be told what they’re doing wrong, and new skills are hard to lay out in terms of, “This is what you should be doing.”

Phil Fisher:                    What we found when we started videotaping families … We’re doing this now for many years and with thousands of families … is that the seeds of this kind of supportive buffering interaction are present almost in all situations including what would be traditionally considered very concerning contacts. Like parents who have significant substance abuse problems and addictions, parents who’ve had their children removed and placed in foster care. Even when we videotape those families we see that there are many instances in which parents are actually engaged in this kind of buffering care.

Phil Fisher:                    So the video coaching films adults and children interacting in real world settings like home or childcare, and then extracts out these brief moments where magical things are happening that naturally occur. And we have great results from some of the research we’ve done on this including that it does actually increase this kind of responsive parenting.

Phil Fisher:                    But we’ve also done some really interesting work looking at parental brain activity before and after the coaching. And we find that parents get better at just general self control on tasks that are kind of these button pushing tasks where they have to withhold responses, and that after the coaching we also see changes in the areas of the brain involved in self control. Just from showing them things that they’re doing with their children and encouraging them to wait to see what the child does and respond.

Chris Riback:                 Are these video interactions, are they accessible at scale for people? How do people get to them?

Phil Fisher:                    Yes. One of the main goals in engineering this particular approach was to make it readily available in community settings. For instance, we have a statewide implementation of this program in Washington State in the Childcare Improvement System there.

Phil Fisher:                    And we have a number of other really large scale projects including right now we’re just getting started in New York City’s Homeless Shelter System. Part of the idea is that showing people instances in which they’re doing supportive things is fairly straightforward which means that community members are able to deliver the coaching once the information has been extracted and put into these specially edited films. It’s really easily available.

Chris Riback:                 Are these local and state policymakers who are working with you to bring the capabilities into the centers and into the New York centers?

Phil Fisher:                    That’s right. It’s a combination of private philanthropy that’s paying for some of the initial implementation, and then state agencies that are really interested in providing supports in these contacts.

Phil Fisher:                    I should point out though, one of the things that I think is really exciting about this work is we started this as a parent support program, and it was people who work in childcare who said, “This would be as useful for coaching childcare providers as it is for parents.” So it’s something that goes across these different contexts, but is the same content in all of those contexts which means it’s getting at really these kind of core processes that are most important for reducing stress and supporting families.

Chris Riback:                 It’s terrific work. Thank you for doing it, and thank you for stopping by the studio to talk to us about it.

Phil Fisher:                    My pleasure. Thanks for asking.


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