There’s a lot of technical talk in the research connecting traumatic childhood events to trouble later in life. But it all boils down to this: Our formative years are our foundation, and if it isn’t strong enough, it can be tough to build on.

Children exposed to abuse, neglect and instability hold that in their bones. It shapes their relationships, and their physical and mental health. It can affect how they learn, and how they deal with adult life.

That’s why it makes sense to focus efforts on those impressionable years. It’s why Mainers in so many walks of life already are.

Sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors are stumping for early childhood education, and better child care and parental supports, because they’ve seen the end result of poverty and neglect, and they know that by the time someone enters their world, it may be too late.

A variety of business and education groups worried about Maine’s workforce extend their concern, too, to early childhood because they know that students who don’t have a safe, nurturing home life will find it difficult to reach their potential.

All these folks recognize the connection between a child’s environment and their future academic achievement and personal well-being. It is a connection backed by ample research surrounding what are formally called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.


A landmark study in the early 1990s laid out 10 categories of adverse childhood experiences, including neglect, physical and mental abuse, and a series of household challenges, such as divorce, domestic violence and parental mental illness.

The study linked the accumulation of these experiences with future troubles, such as substance abuse, depression and a range of physical issues — diabetes, cancer, heart disease and more.

Further research has expanded what we know, showing that the physical and mental effects of adverse childhood experiences — right down to one’s own biochemistry — can impair learning ability and make it difficult for someone to deal with stress and regulate emotions as an adult.

Traumatic events don’t guarantee that something will go bad in someone’s life, but they do make it more likely. A childhood of want and neglect stresses and rewires the brain, perhaps making it crave a cigarette or food for comfort, or lash out quickly at any frustration.

Trouble compounds. It’s all connected.

That’s why the the Children’s Cabinet, recently reestablished by Gov. Janet Mills after being dumped by the LePage administration, includes the commissioners of health and human services, education, labor, corrections and public safety. Each has a stake in building solid foundations in childhood — so that future Mainers are healthy, educated, skilled and law-abiding.


And it’s why an effort such as Thrive 2027 by the United Way of Greater Portland can put so much energy behind something as seemingly narrow as making third-graders better readers, one of three areas of focus for the wide-ranging initiative.

Third-grade reading proficiency is regarded as a great indicator of future success. But improving proficiency isn’t only about giving third-graders more books — it’s about making sure they are supported at home, that they are fed and clothed, and that their parents have the tools and resources to raise them.

Thus, creating better readers necessarily means nurturing healthier, happier children whose futures will be better in a whole host of ways.

The same can be said for building affordable housing, supporting low-income workers, and treating mental illness and substance use disorder.

These initiatives each pull out a rotting plank from the foundation being built for many Maine children. They replace it with something stronger — something that won’t crumble later on, hobbling someone’s future, and the future of our state as a whole.

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