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Bridging the Gap Between Science and Policy in Early Childhood

November 28, 2011
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Neglect and adversity affect a child's brain in profound ways, and lead to long-term cognitive, social, physical and developmental problems, Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, said at a recent symposium about bridging the gap between science and policy in early childhood.

Shonkoff and the other speakers at the Nov. 10 symposium at the University of Southern California agreed that it is critical that those who draft policies and provide services for young children in the child welfare system understand how the brain and body react to negative environments to ensure appropriate, preventive responses.

"Science helps us do better," Shonkoff said, urging the more than 150 symposium attendees, which included child welfare workers, representatives from nonprofit organizations and political offices and those in the early childhood field to use innovation, communication and creativity to find better outcomes for children. Casey Family Programs presented the symposium, and First 5 LA was one of several event partners.

Shonkoff showed two short videos (which you can see here and here) that explain brain development, particularly in the areas of language development and environmental awareness, and how critical adult interaction is to a baby's brain development.

To change a child's negative environment means focusing on the parents and caregivers whose duty it is to protect children from toxic stress, Shonkoff said. Toxic stress is the most extreme kind of stress, and comes from many sources, including chronic neglect, abuse and exposure to violence (compared with positive stress from situations like the first day of preschool or tolerable stress that may arise in serious but temporary situations - like the death of a family member).

"Kids don't exist independent of their relationships with adults," Shonkoff said. "We need to work on the adults."

However, a big challenge to this approach in the policy realm, Shonkoff said, is our culture's tendency to see stress as "something you need to suck up and get over."

During a panel discussion, ZERO TO THREE Executive Director Matthew Melmed said that half of maltreated toddlers have cognitive delays and two-thirds are developmentally delayed. "We have the opportunity to break the cycle one baby, one family, at a time," Melmed added.

To do that, science needs to be translated into policy and practice. Melmed's recommendations included:

  • Making healthy development a priority within the child welfare system
  • Ensuring that displaced babies have the opportunity to foster a strong bond with an adult by having pre-removal consultations and frequent visits with family
  • Increasing access to a wider range of early services, like those that address fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Cultivating family and community partnerships
  • Using data and research to make informed choices

The symposium concluded after attendees worked together in groups to brainstorm feasible plans that incorporate science into making better lives for Los Angeles County's youngest children facing tough circumstances.

Additional Reading:
L.A. County's Youngest Have Big Representation in Child Welfare System (Monday Morning Report)

The Two Year Window: The new science of babies and brains-and how it could revolutionize the fight against poverty (The New Republic)

<<Back to this week's Monday Morning Report. 


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