The Science of Early Childhood Development Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We Do

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The Science of Early Childhood Development Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We Do. Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. Samuel F. and Rose B. Gingold Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, Brandeis University Colloquium Presentation at Harvard University
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The Science of Early Childhood Development Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We DoJack P. Shonkoff, M.D.Samuel F. and Rose B. Gingold Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, Brandeis University Colloquium Presentation at Harvard University Cambridge, MA November 30, 2005Viewing the Needs of Children Within a Broad Context
  • Beyond its intrinsic value as a moral responsibility, the healthy development of children benefits all of society by providing a solid foundation for responsible citizenship, economic productivity,and sustainable democracy.
  • Engaged Scholarship and the Evolving Model of a Knowledge Broker
  • National Academy of Sciences Committee
  • on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood
  • Development (From Neurons to Neighborhoods)
  • MacArthur Research Network on Early Experience and Brain Development
  • National Scientific Council on the Developing Child
  • Core Concepts of Development
  • Converging findings of neuroscience, developmental psychology, and the economics of human capital formation
  • Brains and Skills are Built Over Time
  • The early years of life matter because the interactive influences of both early experience and gene expression affect the architecture of the maturing brain.
  • As it emerges, the quality of that architecture establishes either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all the learning and behavior that follow.
  • Brain Architecture and Skills are Built in a Hierarchical “Bottom-Up” Sequence
  • Neural circuits that process basic information are wired earlier than those that process more complex information.
  • Higher circuits build on lower circuits, and skill development at higher levels is more difficult if lower level circuits are not wired properly.
  • Brain Plasticity and the Ability to Change Behavior Decrease Over Time
  • Brain circuits stabilize with age, making them increasingly more difficult to alter.
  • The window of opportunity for adaptation remains open for many years, butthe costs of remediation grow with increasing age.
  • It is more efficient, both biologically and economically, to get things right the first time than to try to fix them later.
  • Relationships are the “Active Ingredients" of Early Experience
  • Nurturing and responsive interactions build healthy brain architecture that provides a strong foundation for later learning, behavior, and health.
  • When protective relationships are not provided, persistent stressresults in elevated cortisol levels that disrupt brain architecture by impairing cell growth and interfering with the formation of healthy neural circuits.
  • Early Childhood Adversity Influences a Range of Lifelong Outcomes
  • Research on the biology of stress helps explain some of the underlying reasons for both individual and group differences in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.
  • Positive Stress
  • Moderate, short-lived stress responses, such as brief increases in heart rate or mild changes in stress hormone levels.
  • Precipitants include the challenges of meeting new people, dealing with frustration, getting an immunization, or adult limit-setting.
  • An important and necessary aspect of healthy development that occurs in the context of stable and supportive relationships.
  • Tolerable Stress
  • Stress responses that could disrupt brain architecture, but are buffered by supportive relationships that facilitate adaptive coping.
  • Precipitants include death or serious illness of a loved one, a frightening injury, parent divorce, a natural disaster, terrorism, or homelessness.
  • Generally occurs within a time-limited period, which gives the brain an opportunity to recover from potentially damaging effects.
  • Toxic Stress
  • Strong and prolonged activation of the body’s stress management systems in the absence of the buffering protection of adult support.
  • Precipitants include extreme poverty, physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, severe maternal depression, substance abuse, or family violence.
  • Disrupts brain architecture and leads to stress management systems that respond at relatively lower thresholds, thereby increasing the risk of stress-related physical and mental illness.
  • Data to Think About
  • In a study of 188 children under age 3 with newly opened child protection cases, 66% had developmental delays that met eligibility criteria for IDEA-Part C early intervention (MECLI, 2005).
  • In a survey of 119 preschool teachers, 39% reported expelling at least one child from their program in the preceding year (Gilliam, 2004).
  • In a survey of two state Medicaid programs and an HMO, stimulant treatment for 2-4 year olds increased 3-fold over 5 years (Zito et al, 2000).
  • Implications for Policy and PracticeScience Points Toward a Two-Pronged Approach to Early Care and Education
  • Broad access to high-quality preschool for 3 and 4 year olds, with proactive enrollment from low-income families, can be an effective strategy to reduce early inequalities in opportunity.
  • Targeted intervention for children experiencing toxic stress is essential from birthto reduce threats to early brain development that can lead to later problems in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.
  • Policies that Affect Children Extend Beyond Health Care and Education
  • If we really want to promote better outcomes for all children, then we must apply the science of early childhood and early brain development to a broad range of policies …
  • including welfare reform, housing,family and medical leave,adult mental health, and environmental protection, among others.Challenges For the AcademyNeed to Build an Integrated Science of Health, Learning, and Behavior
  • Opportunity to blend the tools of molecular biology, neuroscience, and the behavioral and social sciences to study the interactive influences of gene expression and environment on the developing nervous and immune systems.
  • Opportunities for Those Who Want to Make a Difference
  • The transformative nature of interdisciplinary knowledge generation.
  • Need to elucidate the causal mechanisms
  • that underlie differential outcomes in health,
  • learning, and behavior, beginning in the
  • earliest years of life, with particular emphases
  • on the impacts of poverty, child maltreatment,
  • and categorical discrimination / racism.
  • Opportunities for Those Who Want to Make a Difference
  • The power of integrative education at multiple levels.
  • Need to build leadership capacity and
  • professional competence that combines
  • cross-cutting conceptual knowledge with
  • discipline-based technical expertise and
  • skills.
  • Opportunities for Those Who Want to Make a Difference
  • Public engagement as a scholarly pursuit in its own right.
  • Need for new approaches to knowledge
  • analysis, synthesis, translation, and
  • communication that have significant impact
  • beyond the academy and that preserve the
  • intellectual integrity of the scientific community.
  • Challenges For SocietyRethinking the Balance Between Individual and Shared Responsibility for the Well-being of ChildrenNeed for new strategies to build broad-based public will that transcends political partisanship and recognizes the complementary (not mutually exclusive) responsibilities of family, community, workplace, and government to promote the healthy development of all young children.The Search for New Champions
  • Need for fresh leadership in both the public and private sectors to address significant inequalities in opportunity, beginning in the earliest years of life, as both a moral imperative and a critical investment in the nation’s social and economic future.
  • Final Thoughts
  • “reductionism is the primary and essential activity of science. But dissection and analysis are not all that scientists do. Also crucial are synthesis and integration, tempered by philosophical reflection on significance and value.” (Edward Wilson,1998)
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