The Intersection of Trauma-Informed Care and Executive Functioning in Early Childhood

Jamie Bonczyk


Early childhood is a time of remarkable growth and development, where the foundation for lifelong learning and well-being is established. For children dealing with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), these early years can also be filled with challenges. However, with the right support, children can overcome obstacles and thrive. By understanding the intersection of trauma-informed care and executive functioning, we can create nurturing environments that foster resilience and positive outcomes for all children.

Greater Twin Cities United Way’s 80x3: Resilient from the Start is on a mission to address and minimize the impacts of childhood trauma and expand Minnesota’s capacity to deliver trauma-sensitive care. By providing comprehensive training, coaching, and technical assistance to teachers and administrators, 80x3 equips early childhood education (ECE) programs with the tools they need to create trauma-sensitive and culturally responsive environments, making it more inclusive and supportive for all children and families.

"80x3 has provided invaluable training and resources, enabling our staff to better support children and families dealing with ACEs,” said Dianne Haulcy, President and CEO of The Family Partnership in Minneapolis. “This has opened up important conversations internally and helped us navigate the challenges that come with these experiences."

Executive function skills, such as planning, focusing attention, remembering instructions, and managing multiple tasks, are crucial for success in school and life. While ACEs can pose challenges to the development of these skills, the right interventions can make a significant difference. The long-term impact of ACEs is associated with negative outcomes in physical health (stroke, heart disease and diabetes), mental health (depression, anxiety and suicide), and social health (instability in employment, education and relationships).

Children exposed to chronic stress and trauma can struggle with cognitive functioning and emotional regulation. However, with the support of trauma-informed educators and a supportive community, these children can develop strong executive function skills. "We work with children who have mild to moderate delays due to various traumas," explained Dianne. "These delays can impede learning, but with the right support, such as occupational, speech, and physical therapies, we can help these children catch up and thrive."

“A good metaphor for executive function is air traffic control in the brain. Those skills are getting wired in at the fastest pace, with the least energy input in 3 to 5-year-olds,” said John Till, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Innovation at the Family Partnership in Minneapolis. “Those early years are also a time when if children are in unpredictable environments, unsafe or dangerous environments, and they don't have the benefit of caregivers who are paying attention to them and doing really good to serve and return interactions with them, that can buffer them against ACEs and toxic stress that can affect their whole life trajectory.”

“There's a 20-year gap between discoveries in a lab setting and actual practical applications in the field that can benefit human beings. A 20-year gap. That's a generation. So when we heard about ACEs and the impact on executive function, I just said to myself, well, we've got to do something about that, you know, because not every preschool has therapists of various kinds,” said John.

By embracing trauma-informed care and fostering the development of executive function skills, we can create environments where all children, regardless of their backgrounds, have the opportunity to succeed. This holistic approach is essential for fostering resilience, promoting equitable outcomes, and building a brighter future for each child and their families. 

About the Author

Jamie Bonczyk is a Program Officer for 80×3: Resilient from the Start, an innovative region-wide initiative to increase capacity to support parenting skills and provide trauma-sensitive early child care in a safe, stable environment that supports child resiliency. Her background includes the roles of executive director of an early learning nonprofit, Head Start administrator, adjunct instructor, author, professional development content creator, and preschool teacher. Jamie has a bachelor’s degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead and a master’s degree from Roosevelt University, both in early childhood education. She completed a Head Start Management Fellowship at UCLA and became a Certified Professional Project Manager through the University of St Thomas.

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