Professors investigate how messaging influences policymaking regarding child development

Originally Posted on The Triangle via UWIRE

A project team from the Dornsife School of Public Health has received a grant to learn more about how policy makers and the general public think about toxic stress in children and what policies they would be willing to adopt to address such problems. (Photograph courtesy of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson)

Jonathan Purtle, an assistant professor for Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, received a $500,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to research public policy and childhood development.

Purtle has gathered a project team, which includes Sarah Gollust, an assistant professor from the University of Minnesota; John Rich, an assistant professor at Dornsife; and Michael Yudell and Felice Le-Scherban, both assistant professors at Dornsife.

The project team is looking to learn more about how policy makers and the general public think about toxic stress in children and what policies they would be willing to adopt to address such problems.

While stress is normal, toxic stress occurs when there is prolonged stress present in a child’s life. Adverse childhood experiences contribute to toxic stress. The most common ACE in the United States is economic hardship, followed by the divorce or separation of a parent or guardian. Other common ACEs in the nation include substance abuse, exposure to violence and mental illnesses.

About 46 percent of children in the United States have experienced at least one ACE. The number is higher among black and Hispanic children, with 61 percent of black children and 51 percent of Hispanic children experiencing one or more ACE across the country. These numbers are lowest among Asian children, with 23 percent having experienced one or more ACE.

ACEs contribute to toxic stress and it has been found that toxic stress can cause changes to a child’s brain function and structure. These changes can affect learning ability and the ability to adapt to difficult situations. The impacts of toxic stress can also increase a child’s risk to develop cardiovascular diseases and cancer later in life.

Purtle believes that these scientific results could lead to prejudices against vulnerable families if they are not communicated effectively. He wants to use this grant to explore how best to broach these issues with legislators and the public and determine what policies would be supported to combat these issues.

“I hope the study will generate knowledge that can be used to improve the effectiveness of advocacy efforts and advance policies that reduce exposure to toxic stress and enhance resilience,” Purtle told DrexelNow.

The study to be conducted by Purtle and his team will have three phases. During the first phase, the team will interview those involved in child advocacy and analyze news coverage of topics related to childhood adversity and toxic stress. In the second phase, the team will look at how different ways of framing the scientific evidence about toxic stress are received by the public and explore what prejudices might arise. The third stage will look at how legislators on health, welfare, and education committees respond to different ways of conveying the evidence.

“By randomizing laypeople and policymakers to read messages in which toxic stress is framed in different ways, and then assessing their opinions, the study will produce solid evidence about the most effective ways of communicating about toxic stress,” Purtle told DrexelNow.

The grant will also allow Purtle and his team to work with policymakers to develop more effective ways to balance the health inequality in the nation.

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