Harvard Public Health Review Winter 2007
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Healthy Children: The Best Investment
ChildrenWhat’s the best way for society to help vulnerable young children grow up to become healthy, productive adults? What programs work best—and are most worthy of our investment?

According to a new report from the Harvard University-wide Center for the Developing Child, the answers lie at hand, thanks to four decades of program evaluation evidence and a remarkable convergence of new scientific knowledge about the developing brain, the human genome, and the impact of early childhood experiences on later learning, behavior, and health. Today’s policymakers have unprecedented opportunities to change life prospects for children at high risk for problems ranging from school failure and depression to cardiovascular disease and substance abuse.

The report, A Science-Based Frame-work for Early Childhood Policy,* “will help public- and private-sector leaders make wise investments in our nation’s future,” says Center Director Jack P. Shonkoff, a principal author and the Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development at Harvard’s School of Public Health (HSPH) and Graduate School of Education.

Prepared in response to policymakers’ requests, the report was released in August in Boston, with bipartisan participation at the Annual Meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Unbiased Science
“It pays to invest in effective programs,” Shonkoff asserts. “The years from birth to age 5 lay the foundation for what should be a lifetime of successful learning, sound physical and mental health, responsible citizenship, and economic productivity.”

The new report integrates research findings in neuro-science with evaluations of various early childhood services, including home visits, child care, and pre-school programs. After summarizing the scientific principles underlying early brain development, the report identifies “effectiveness factors” associated with programs that measurably benefit kids. Among these factors are basic medical care for pregnant women and young children, and environmental policies that reduce levels of known neurotoxins to protect the developing brain.

Crafted by members of the National Forum on Early Childhood Program Evaluation and the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, two initiatives of the Harvard Center, A Science-Based Frame-work for Early Childhood Policy underwent a rigorous review by outside scholars. State legislators attending the August conference welcomed the effort. “When science can be brought to bear on critical issues involving child development, it can give us the unbiased information we need to develop the best policies for our states,” said Melvin Neufeld, a Republican who is Speaker of the House of Representatives in Kansas.

Parents and Teachers Key
Brain architecture is shaped by both genetics and early experience, stress Shonkoff and his collaborators. Of crucial importance is the ability of parents, teachers, and care providers to interact warmly with children in stable, stimulating environments. The goal, they say, is to help build a sturdy neurological foundation for successful learning, socially adaptive behavior, and lifelong physical and mental health.

Ensuring nurturing experiences early in life is more likely to be effective—and cost-effective—than providing remediation at later ages, the authors conclude. Cost-benefit studies show a strong return on investment for high-quality programs that target vulnerable children, as early as prenatally and as late as age 4.

For copies or further information about the Center on the Developing Child, visit www.developingchild.harvard.edu.

Photograph: Getty Images/MedioImage

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