Healthi Kids Coalition’s focus on children’s health continues to expand, thanks to its partnership with the Greater Rochester Health Foundation.

An initiative of Common Ground Health and a long-time grantee of the Health Foundation, Healthi Kids has focused on addressing childhood healthy weight for the past decade. The program has advocated for more physical activity in schools, better food in schools and neighborhoods, and safer, more accessible play areas and streets.

Now in addition to healthy eating and physical activity, the initiative will focus on policy and advocacy that addresses the physical, social, emotional and cognitive health of children through age 8.

Part of the Health Foundation’s Healthy Futures Strategy, this expanded approach aims to improve health and wellbeing for children and families including promoting healthy environments for development.

Healthi Kids will build on established relationships with schools, neighborhoods and families in Rochester and Monroe County, and eventually expand regionally. The program’s goal is to identify and change policies, systems and barriers to health that families face.

The Health Foundation has embarked on this approach to child health as a more comprehensive way of looking at children as whole people, explained Dina Faticone, Common Ground Health’s director of community health and engagement. “We will build on what we have learned through our healthy weight work to influence that crucial early childhood foundation.”

“Research has shown that in the first few years of life, more than 1 million neuro-connections form every second,” she said. “Those first few years are critical for development.”

Studies have found that toxic stress from negative experiences in childhood can disrupt brain development, especially in the parts of the brain that help us plan, focus attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks. This damage can impair learning, behavior and physical and mental health, she said.

Although unhealthy weight and other associated downstream outcomes may be linked to negative childhood experiences, protective factors – such as a positive relationship with a caring adult – may in some cases be all that’s needed to counteract an adverse experience, Faticone notes.

“The goal is to create an environment that ensures children are equipped with protective factors so that in spite of traumatic experiences, children can build that resiliency,” Faticone said.

Other strategies may include fostering healthy relationships, creating safe and secure environments and psychological safety, building healthy habits and teaching skills and competencies.

In addition to policy advocacy work, the foundation’s Healthy Futures Strategy includes building a new training and coaching center run by the Children’s Institute. The initiative also includes a social and emotional health task force, partnerships with the pediatric community and engagement with child-serving agencies, child care centers, schools and families. Lessons learned through each of the elements are intended to be shared with the others, Faticone said.

“By focusing on the whole child, we hope to see a long-term positive improvement in our kids and our communities,” Faticone said.