The First 1,000 Days Shape a Lifetime – by Robin M. Cayce, Ed.D.

Every child deserves the opportunity to have a healthy and successful life – and the first 1,000 days are the most crucial. Across the state of Tennessee, 13 innovation grants funded by Governor and Mrs. Haslam were chosen as a part of the statewide “Building Strong Brains Initiative” to promote public awareness about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs are caused by traumatic experiences and severe neglect or toxic stress, which can damage the connections being built in a child’s brain in the earliest years of life.

In Chattanooga, the grant provided the opportunity for two days of events to help raise awareness of ACEs with the first day being a series of professional forums with Dr. Pat Levitt, neuroscientist and senior fellow at the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University. These forums included legal, medical, and behavioral health professionals, along with a training workshop for early childhood and youth providers. The second day began with a coordinated discussion on ACEs between  Dr. Levitt and Chattanooga 2.0 community committee members. Chattanooga 2.0 is a  community-wide movement to support a better educated workforce beginning at birth and continuing through career – comprised of business and community leaders, government officials, nonprofit and faith-based organizations, neighborhoods and families.

An ACEs Community Summit concluded the two days of events, headlined by Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam and Dr. Pat Levitt. “This is a statewide problem [that] needs a statewide solution,” said First Lady Haslam during her discussion at the Community Summit on the need for building emotionally healthy children at the very beginning of life. “When the architecture of the brain is being built, that’s when the brain is also the most vulnerable in terms of adverse childhood experiences, “ said Dr. Levitt.

Being exposed to these types of traumatic experiences and negative situations, within the first 1,000 days of life, can have severe impacts on brain development and the likelihood of success later on in life. Studies have shown there is a link between childhood stress and a predisposition to multiple problems throughout a person’s life, such as obesity, marital problems and alcohol abuse.

Various education leaders throughout Hamilton County, including Mayor Jim Coppinger and Ariel Ford, City of Chattanooga Office of Early Learning, spoke at the Community Summit on why Chattanooga is focused on early learning and building strong brains for our earliest learners. Several programs have been put into play throughout the community.

Through the City of Chattanooga’s Office of Early Learning, the groundwork that has already been established is being built upon. For example, the City of Chattanooga is working with United Way of Greater Chattanooga on developing an early learning scholarship program aimed at helping parents get their children into high quality childcare. By using a blended approach, this program not only keeps parents informed about the value of early childhood learning but also helps to close the gap for families who are not eligible for childcare vouchers and cannot afford the cost of high quality early childhood.


Since 2014, the City of Chattanooga has been working with Signal Centers on Baby U, which works to tear down barriers for families to provide the youngest members of the community with early learning development. Baby U also educates early mothers on how to keep themselves and their children healthy. The results have been astounding, with 100% of Baby U mothers receiving prenatal care. For the mothers who are in high school, they have all graduated on time.

Parents must realize the importance of early learning from day one of a child’s life and strive to limit a child’s exposure to violence and traumatic experiences. As educators, counselors, caregivers, and leaders, we also must understand the symptoms of adverse childhood experiences later in childhood.

“We want to change the conversation from what’s wrong with this child to what’s happened to this child,” said First Lady Crissy Haslam.

“It takes a community” could not be truer when discussing ACEs intervention. Over 440 concerned citizens across the state of Tennessee, including several members of the Chattanooga 2.0 Early Learning Coalition, were trained to be ACEs trainers by the State of Tennessee. In the Greater Chattanooga/Hamilton County region, these individuals will continue to work with community groups to address ACEs education and awareness.

Through coordination with the Chattanooga 2.0 initiative and United Way of Greater Chattanooga, the ACEs Summit and forums created the foundation for the launch of the Chattanooga BASICs by the Early Childhood Coalition. Chattanooga BASICS is a public awareness campaign that emphasizes the importance of early childhood education to help address the impact of ACEs.

The Chattanooga BASICS program is now available to the families of Hamilton County through a joint effort with the Boston Basics organization, a group started by The Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI) at Harvard University. AGI aims to close skill gaps between racial, ethnic, and income groups and to raise achievement levels for all children. Using five evidence-based parenting and caregiving principles, Chattanooga BASICs practices will be implemented in everyday life by parents and caregivers of all walks of life through the support of a broad range of Chattanooga organizations and community members.

ACEs messages will be included in expansion and outreach efforts to educate and inform the public working in schools, early childhood occupations, through local faith-based organizations, local businesses, institutions of higher learning  and in community-based programs as part of the Chattanooga 2.0 coalition goals.

The public viewed an open screening of Paper Tigers, a documentary chronicling a year in the life of six students at Lincoln High School in the community of Walla Walla, Washington through the course of traumatic events in their lives and along the journey of healing, support and academic promise they find at Lincoln High.  There is also an open screening and panel discussion of Resilience–the Biology of Stress and Science of Hope, a documentary focusing on the work of pediatricians, therapists, educators, and communities that birthed the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study and how it’s spawned a movement across the U.S.
Throughout Tennessee and across the country, communities are beginning to explore ACES (adverse childhood experiences) and how these early-life events affect entire communities.  Knowledge is power. The more we know, the more we can do to prevent or reverse the consequences of these traumatic experiences and give our children the support and resources to succeed later in life. We are thankful for a community that rallies around our children and hopeful that the knowledge and actions stemming from the ACEs Summit will continue to transform Chattanooga into the smartest city in the South.
Robin Cayce, Ed.D.
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