October 2, 2023

Center on the Developing Child Releases Report on Role of Racism in Child Development

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child recently released a report on the harmful effects of racism on child development, and possible policy solutions which address the source of structural, cultural, and interpersonal forms of hate.

Entitled, “Moving Upstream: Confronting Racism to Open Up Children’s Potential,” the report reveals unique and significant stressors for families raising young children of color and looks at the link between racist interactions and future success.

About the Report

This report shares a portion of current knowledge on the effects of racism on child development and is based on studies from the social and biological sciences. It is not an complete review of all related research. Report authors took and adapted content from “Early Childhood Adversity, Toxic Stress, and the Impacts of Racism on the Foundations of Health,” by Jack P. Shonkoff, Natalie Slopen, and David R. Williams.

Additional research findings, particularly in the biological sciences, are currently the subject of an ongoing inquiry by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and will be reported in future Center publications.

Key Findings

How Racism Affects the Body

Please note: There is no evidence that the groups we commonly call “races” have unique, unifying genetic identities. Distinctions by race are empty social creations that change over time with societal influences. Therefore, well-documented “racial disparities”
in health outcomes undoubtedly have multiple causes that are not genetically determined.

Stress & Allostatic Load
  • The body responds to adverse experiences and exposures by activating the stress response, popularly known as “fight or flight.” When activated at high levels for long periods, it can become what is known as toxic stress or allostatic load, which can have a significant effect on children’s brains and other biological systems. The need to cope continuously with the burdens of structural racism and everyday discrimination can be a potent activator of that kind of regular stress response, which builds up over time.
  • When the stress response is triggered, the immune system responds by sending immune cells to fight off potential infections. This
    process is called inflammation. Persistently elevated inflammation puts highly activated substances in constant contact with multiple organs, which can disrupt their function over time. For some individuals, this can produce lasting changes in biological systems that increase the risk of later impairments, such as:

    • obesity,
    • diabetes,
    • heart disease,
    • depression, and
    • preterm births.
  • Both Black men and women have higher mean allostatic load scores than do White men and women at all ages, equivalent to as much as 10 years of aging.
Environmental Threats
  • Additionally, toxic environmental exposures—including air pollution, heavy metals (e.g., cadmium, arsenic, lead), contaminated water, and pesticides—are more prevalent —in neighborhoods populated mostly by people of color with low incomes. As a result, these exposures are experienced at disproportionately higher levels by Black populations. They are associated with increased risk of:
    • poor pregnancy outcomes,
    • poor nutrition,
    • higher rates of obesity and diabetes, and
    • decreased physical activity.

How Racism Creates Conditions That Harm the Well-Being of Children and Families

Race-based discrimination is deeply embedded within social, political, and economic systems and institutions, such as housing, labor markets, the justice system, immigration policies, education, health care, and the media, among others. This complex web of economic policies, zoning regulations, social misconceptions, and historical legacies results in regular barriers and unequal opportunities that affect the healthy development of children in multiple ways.

Segregated Neighborhoods

  • Residential segregation by race—whether through historical housing policies or economic inequalities—continues throughout the United States, with significant differences in:
    • neighborhood quality,
    • living conditions,
    • exposure to environmental toxins, and
    • access to opportunities.
  • Longstanding institutional neglect and disinvestment in poor, segregated communities contribute to low-quality housing, underfunded schools, and weakened community and neighborhood infrastructures that harm interpersonal relationships and trust among neighbors.
  • In the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, almost two-thirds of all White and Asian-American children live in high or very high opportunity neighborhoods, compared to 19% of Black, 23% of Hispanic, and 29% of Native American children.
  • Segregation makes it harder for families to improve their circumstances (and life prospects for their children) by decreasing access to:
    • quality early childhood services,
    • elementary and high school education,
    • after-school services,
    • preparation for higher education, and
    • employment opportunities.
  • Segregation adversely affects both access to medical care and the quality of care received. Medical facilities in largely segregated, lower socioeconomic neighborhoods are more likely to have:
    • less financial stability,
    • less access to diagnostic imaging equipment, and
    • higher barriers to finding and keeping specialty doctors.

Interpersonal Discrimination

  • Experiencing racial bias or animosity is often connected to:
    • lower self-esteem,
    • diminished psychological well-being,
    • increased problems related to pregnancy outcomes, and
    • higher levels of alcohol consumption, depressive symptoms, and obesity.
  • Increased reports of discrimination have been connected with higher rates of preterm delivery and babies with very low birth weight.
  • A study of Black and Latina urban, teen mothers found that everyday discrimination reported during pregnancy predicted greater separation problems and negative emotions in their children at 6 months and one year of age.
  • Discrimination experienced by mothers is connected with increased indicators of inflammation in their children aged 4-9 years.

Financial Stress and Loss

  • Among the most common items on typical lists of stressful life events are financial difficulties and the loss of a loved one. The financial strain of poverty is significantly more common among Black (31%), Hispanic (23%), and American Indian (30%) children relative to non-Hispanic, White children (10% ).
  • Relationship losses—and the resulting financial challenges—due to imprisonment are disproportionately felt by families of color compared to White families (see below), as is the death of a loved one due to poorer living and working conditions, earlier onset of disease, and higher rates of early death.


  • Significant disparities in surveillance, prosecution, and sentencing have driven a tenfold increase in the risk of incarceration for Black men compared to White men. Considerable evidence shows that adult incarceration affects the health and well-being of children and their families, including:
    • economic instability and adverse influences on prenatal health,
    • infant and child death,
    • obesity,
    • poor self-reported health in childhood and young adulthood,
    • unhealthy behaviors and mental health problems, and
    • poorer school outcomes
  • Mass incarceration of adults has increased racial disparities in children’s behavioral and mental health problems by 15-25% for externalizing problems and 24-46% for internalizing problems.
  • Exposure to high levels of police incidents, which are much higher in neighborhoods with mostly Black families, is also connected with higher rates of preterm births.

Cultural Racism & Immigration Policy

  • Negative stereotypes and images of racial groups normalize and support the idea of racial inferiority, and can spark and sustain both institutional and individual discrimination.
  • Cultural racism contributes to bias in how students of color are treated in school, beginning in the early childhood years.
  • Black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely than their White peers to receive one or more suspensions. Accordingly, although Black children make up 19% of the preschool population, they make up almost half (47%) of the preschoolers suspended one or more times.
  • Anti-immigrant initiatives trigger hostility that can lead to a feeling of vulnerability, threat, and psychological distress among individuals who get targeted directly, as well as those who get affected indirectly, including children.
  • A study of Latinos in 38 U.S. states found higher rates of mental health illnesses in areas with more exclusionary policies.

Policy Recommendations

  • Strengthen policies that provide economic support.
  • Invest in place-based interventions.
  • Take steps to reduce cultural racism.

Learn More

To learn more, read the full report or visit the Center on the Developing Child website.


Information for this post was taken directly from the Center on the Developing Child’s “Moving Upstream: Confronting Racism to Open Up Children’s Potential.” Some text may have been added, paraphrased, or adapted for readability and comprehension.

Resources and Related Content


December 1, 2021

Webinar: Racism, Anti-Racism, and the Social Ecology

Join Strengthening Families upcoming webinar, Racism, Anti-Racism, and the Social Ecology. This event will be held virtually and interested individuals may register online.

Additional Information

This webinar will explore how racism permeates the social ecology of children’s and families’ lives through the lens of a new infographic from the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), and what it looks like to implement anti-racist strategies, policies, and practices as individuals, in organizations, and at the community and societal levels.

Dr. Charlyn Harper Browne and Cailin O’Connor will draw from CSSP’s anti-racist intersectional frame and explore how Strengthening Families can be implemented as an anti-racist approach to work with families. Following the presentation, participants will have time to discuss and share their reflections on the content as well as thoughts about how to apply these ideas in their work.

Participants will also hear about other new resources and opportunities from CSSP and the Children’s Trust Fund Alliance.


October 6, 2021

Action Conversations on Race: Male Allies and White Accomplices

Join YWCA Pittsburgh for the next Action Conversation on Race which observes YWCA USA’s Week Without Violence. Rhonda L. Fleming, Chief of Prevention, Intervention, and Outreach at Women’s Center & Shelter Greater Pittsburgh, will moderate a discussion focused on how men and white people can contribute to the elimination of racial and gender-based violence.

Additional Information

Every third Wednesday of the month 12-1pm EST, YWCA Greater Pittsburgh’s Center for Race and Gender Equity presents  Action Conversations on Race, a panel discussion dedicated to racial justice. Featuring local experts and leaders in fields such as equity and diversity, policy change, and advocacy, these conversations are designed to build community and create change.

Participants can register for upcoming Action Conversations on Zoom or join us through Facebook Live. Scroll down to view our upcoming themes for Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 season, as well as links to recordings and resources from previous conversations.


December 18, 2020

Foundations of Anti-Racist, Trauma-Informed, and Health

Join the Creative Learning Network on Wednesday, January 6 for their Lunch Break session, “Foundations of Anti-Racist, Trauma-Informed, and Health.”


During this session, participants will gain an understanding of foundational principles related to the intersection of anti-racism, trauma-informed, and holistic health in out-of-school (OST) programs for the purpose of supporting young people of color.


To register, visit the online registration page.


September 15, 2020

Advancing Anti-Racist Instruction in K-12 Curriculum

Are you interested in learning concrete strategies for implementing anti-racist content in your school or district? Join EdSurge on October 14 for their webinar, “Advancing Anti-Racist Instruction in K-12 Curriculum.”


In this webinar, participants will learn how educators, schools, and districts can and should intentionally interrogate representation within their curriculum and support anti-racism more broadly. In a time when actively anti-racist content is urgently needed in virtual and in-person classrooms alike, representative voices, diverse perspectives, and unheard narratives can still be hard to find in instructional content.

Hear from a panel of experts and education leaders about concrete strategies for implementing anti-racist content in your school or district, across subject areas and grade levels. Participants will also hear from school and district leaders about strategies for taking a multi-pronged approach.

Learning Objectives

During this webinar, participants will learn how to:

    • support anti-racism during remote learning;
    • develop robust instructional content that promotes anti-racism;
    • build an anti-racist culture and safe community in virtual and in-person spaces;
    • support teacher training on anti-racism; and
    • create buy-in for school and district-wide anti-racism efforts.


To register and learn more, visit the event webpage.


September 11, 2020

SEL & Mental Health in Distance Learning

Are you interested in learning how to implement social-emotional and mental health supports for your students and staff? Attend the webinar “SEL & Mental Health in Distance Learning: District Leaders Share Best Practices” on September 15 to hear best practices from education leaders.


In this webinar, presenters will share:

    • how to connect and build trust with students, laying the groundwork for engagement and learning;
    • best practices for supporting students in special education in distance learning;
    • how to ensure staff feels safe and supported;
    • how to implement SEL that supports anti-racism and equity in distance learning; and
    • how to implement digital tools in an MTSS for efficacy and sustainability.

School and district administrators will learn concrete steps they can take to deliver effective, trauma-informed SEL and mental health supports to students and staff as schools and communities continue to grapple with the challenges of COVID-19.

This recorded webinar will be of interest to school and district leaders of pre-k through high school grade levels, federal program coordinators, and those involved in student mental health.


To register and learn more, visit the event webpage.


June 4, 2020

Anti-Racism Tools

As caregivers, community members, and early childhood educators, we have a responsibility to ensure each child, family, and caregiver is safe from racism and discrimination and has equitable opportunities to thrive.

In order to do this, we must begin with ourselves. Set aside time in your day to do a personal inventory. What thoughts, feelings, and behaviors have you contributed to upholding systems of racism? What assumptions are you making? What actions or inactions have you taken that contribute to systems of oppression?

Next, consider your family and your friends—what behaviors, statements, or jokes have gone unchecked? What actions or inactions have you taken within your interpersonal relationships that have contributed to an unsafe community for our black and brown children, neighbors, and colleagues? How might you begin to lead by example within your own family or community?

Anti-racism work is something that has to be attended to in an ongoing way. In order to support you in this work, we have compiled the following resources. Note that this list is not exhaustive.

Resources for Adults

Resources for Educators

Resources for Discussing Racism and Violence with Children

Children’s Books

Resources for Social/Emotional Development


November 5, 2019

Anti-Racism in Early Education

What does it mean to bring an anti-racist lens to the classroom? Join Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg and P.R.I.D.E. on November 14 to find out.


On November 14, community members are invited to join P.R.I.D.E. at the Homewood Community Engagement Center for their event, “Anti-Racism in Early Education.” As a part of the P.R.I.D.E. Speaker Series, the event will feature anti-racism scholar Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg. Dr. Escayg is an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her work focuses on bringing an anti-racist framework to early education.


P.R.I.D.E. (Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education) is part of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development within the School of Education. Their goal is to help young Black children, aged 3 to 8, understand race and embrace their ethnicity and heritage.


To RSVP, visit the event registration page.

More Information

For questions, contact P.R.I.D.E. at 412.383.8726 or

*Information provided by P.R.I.D.E.