Research shows early childhood education is one of the most effective ways to prevent drug use later in life. That’s especially important in Rio Arriba County, where an opioid epidemic has been raging for decades.
At Conjunto preschool in Española, a group of about 10 3-year-olds is in the middle of library time—where they can have a teacher read through their favorite book, play with blocks, or just sit and decompress. Today the kids are rehearsing their alphabet skills.
“The kids are learning how to get along, how to be in a group, how to express themselves,” said Becky Trujillo. She is the 3-year-old class’s teacher. Getting along with others and expressing thoughts and emotions are important skills for any 3-year-old to learn, but for this class, they can make a huge difference when the kids grow older.
Because around half of the students here have been through some kind of trauma in their lives—usually having to do with a parent suffering from drug addiction.
“We have lots of kids with varying needs, that we really do an individual plan for so we know how to handle any outbursts or sadness,” Trujillo said. When asked how often these outbursts happen, she said about every 10 minutes.
Conjunto’s teachers are specially trained to deal with those outbursts and work with kids to get through their unique problems. Being in a mixed group—with some children from stable homes and others with traumatic backgrounds—helps them prepare for social interactions outside the home. There are behavioral health specialists on site, and the children get special therapy sessions to help them come to terms with the trauma they’ve been through.
That’s what drew Debra Rodriguez to enroll her granddaughter Alexis in Conjunto this year.
“Maybe they can help her understand what’s going on with the therapy sessions and stuff like that,” she said. “I think that would help her out.”
Alexis’s mom is in jail on drug charges, and now Debra is caring for her and her brothers and sisters by herself. Her mom’s arrest was frightening and hard for a kid her age to process.
“She was taking it kind of hard in the beginning, like she would cry for her mom and ask for her mom and stuff like that,” said Debra. “It’s rough for her, you know what I mean?”
We now know that traumatic childhood events like losing a parent to the criminal justice system, abuse or neglect causes physiological changes in the brain. Nora Volkow, who directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said those changes can have serious consequences later in life if they’re not dealt with early.
“Because the connections that normally, for example, allow the frontal cortex—which is the area in our brain that enables us to regulate and control our desires are not properly connected,” she said.
Those connections keep the brain from influencing emotion and desires.
“This is one of the mechanisms by which coming from a very socially deprived environment can make you more vulnerable to impulsive actions,” Volkow said.
Acting impulsively can lead to problems in school, run-ins with police, teen pregnancy and drug use.
But if children learn to function well in groups, express their emotions in healthy ways and control their impulses in their early years, research shows they’ll be more likely to succeed in school, and their chance of falling into addiction later in life can fall drastically.
That’s why the NIH is pushing for more support of programs like Conjunto—which Volkow said is even more important in communities with longstanding addiction issues like Española.
But most of the kids in Rio Arriba County who need this kind of help aren’t getting it.
“There’s not enough pre-K programs in this area,” said Conjunto principal Johnna Aguino.
Conjunto only has the resources to teach around 30 or 40 kids at a time. And there’s almost always a waiting list of at least that many more children hoping to get into the program. It all comes down to funding.
“Overall no, there’s not enough resources. I think we could be supported more, and more funding means more services provided,” said Aguino.
A lot of the funding these programs for at-risk youth get comes from the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department, which escaped budget cuts last year. But as state lawmakers continue to make cuts in order to balance the budget, more money for this kind of program is still probably a ways off.
This series, Enduring Addiction, was produced as a project for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and the National Health Journalism Fellowship, programs of the Center for Health Journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
KUNM's Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Find out more at publichealthnm.org.