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ODU’s Early Childhood Policy Center examines the increase in gun violence in the lives of Virginia children

By Breanna Bowman

The November 2018 report by Old Dominion University's Virginia Early Childhood Policy Center (VECPC) examines the current state of violence in the lives of Virginia children. There is a special focus on gun violence - intentional and accidental - and offers suggestions to help reduce violence, injury and fatality in the lives of Virginia's children.

The report was authored by Dr. Angela Eckhoff, co-director of VECPC and associate professor of teaching and learning in the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies, along with her graduate research assistant Rebecca Tilhou. Tilhou is pursuing a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction.

"It is a major concern that children who experience violence or high-stress situations have changes in the cognitive functions of their brains," said Eckhoff. According to Eckhoff, children who experience violence in their lives "have to process how to adapt in their circumstances while managing the curriculum and content from school," she said.

According to the report, the cognitive functions affect how children develop social and emotional skills. Research shows that unsafe environments and violence cause stress in children, which effects brain development.

"For all of us, chronic stress produces higher levels of cortisol and that is known to negatively affect brain functioning," said Eckhoff. "Children that experience consistent violence as a part of their young lives are at an increased risk for learning disabilities, behavioral issues and other health challenges because of the toxic nature of chronic stress."

A 2018 study referenced in the report found that 4.6 million children in the U.S. live in homes with at least one loaded, unlocked firearm. Unsecured or accessible guns pose an enormous risk to children's safety and in 2016 over 40 children's deaths were recorded by gunshot wounds.

"One interesting fact that I discovered was the statistic reporting that youngest children having the highest rate of experiencing violence," said Tilhou.

A challenge for professional educators, said Eckhoff, is that children who experience violence at home or in the community are still expected to perform equally in the classroom as their peers. The report proposes implementing more social and emotional learning programs in Virginia schools to help children. It also suggests how school divisions can support the needs of these students along with strategies for identifying violence and helping children deal with stress.

According to the report, in the United States, the third leading cause of death in children under the age of four is homicide; estimating over 175,000 deaths due to abuse and neglect. In 2016, there is a notable increase in the state of Virginia of child homicide by 12 percent. Physical abuse is the leading cause of mortality in children with gunshot wounds following with 44.5 percent.

"These numbers don't seem large but for the size of the state of Virginia that is overwhelming," shares Eckhoff. "We want people to recognize that these things happen."

Data from the report inspired Eckhoff to investigate what stressors are occurring in school and how it may be affecting young children. She is currently collaborating with Dr. Emily Goodman-Scott, a school counseling coordinator, to explore how lockdown drills impact children and staff working in Pre K - 12 public schools in Virginia.

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