Employers in the state of Washington have a problem. Almost half of businesses surveyed there in 2004 couldn't find qualified workers, according to an Op/Ed in the Spokesman-Review. The author-- a member of the state's Board of Education--blamed the shortage on Washington's inadequate education system. But Jack Shonkoff, a renowned expert in early childhood development, would argue that safeguarding a society's economic productivity and dynamism begins not in the workplace, nor in school, but the moment the brain begins to develop.

"Neurobiology and the behavioral and social sciences have given us an unprecedented understanding of the important inter-relations among brain development, early life experiences, and the emergence of human competence," says Shonkoff. "But there is a huge gap between what we know about raising healthy children--and consequently, a sustainable society--and what we do in terms of policy and practice."

In his quest to close that gap and put research into practice, in July, Shonkoff, the former dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, brought his expertise to Harvard. Through a new, joint faculty appointment at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), Shonkoff aims to build synergy among faculty working in early childhood development, the biomedical sciences, and public health policy. At HSPH, he is professor of child health and development within the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health.

In 2000, Shonkoff chaired a committee of the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council that produced a groundbreaking report, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. In assessing the full breadth of scientific knowledge about how young children develop, the report also galvanized thinking about how to apply that knowledge.
The impact of From Neurons to Neighborhoods "cannot be underestimated," says HSPH Dean Barry R. Bloom. "The book amassed a compelling and ultimately incontrovertible body of scientific evidence to deliver a profound message: If we invest appropriately and wisely in the early development of children now, our entire society will reap extraordinary benefits later."
The report found that:

  • The nature vs. nurture debate is obsolete. Both genes and the environment deeply influence brain development and human behavior;
  • Whether early relationships promote competence or lead to dysfunction depends on how nurturing and stable they are;
  • Society is failing to meet too many children's fundamental needs to ensure safe, emotionally supportive, healthy social and physical environments;
  • The science of early childhood development is often disconnected from policy and practice. For example: research underscores the importance of consistent, nurturing caregivers in the first years of life, yet the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act allows only 12 weeks of unpaid time away from work to care for a child and only covers half of the workforce.

From Neurons to Neighborhoods led to the creation of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, made up of neuroscientists, economists, psychologists, pediatricians, and communication researchers. With Shonkoff as chair, its members are working to translate science for policy makers and civic leaders to build new leadership for informed policy in both the public and private sectors. At Harvard, the council's work will fall under a new, University-wide center that will focus on children's issues.

"The basic assumption behind the center is that scientific knowledge does not speak for itself," explains Shonkoff. "We in the academy tend to think that if we publish good work in peer-reviewed journals, our job is done. But the science may not speak to the needs of policy makers, or it may speak to them in a foreign language."

"When it comes to investment in early childhood development and education, American society
faces an 'emperor has no clothes' situation," says Dan Pedersen, president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. "If anyone can put clothes on the emperor, it's Jack Shonkoff. He has a rare ability to marshal all the top-shelf research and then communicate that work to nonscientists in a way that makes immediate sense."

Shonkoff plans to cultivate an interdisciplinary research agenda--one that combines fundamental investigations of the biological mechanisms underlying human health and development with rigorous studies of societal influences that foster or undermine it. Initially the center will look particularly at how early life stresses associated with poverty, maltreatment, and racism lead to health and learning disparities.

The state of Washington is taking Shonkoff's work and similar research by others very seriously. In 2005, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, headquartered in Seattle, announced that it would make $90 million in grants available over 10 years to improve early learning in the state. In July of 2006, the state announced its "Thrive by Five" initiative, a public-private partnership co-chaired by Governor Christine Gregoire and Bill Gates, Sr., that will enhance early learning and parent education programs. The announcement came on the heels of the creation of a new cabinet-level Department of Early Learning.

State Representative Ruth Kagi, a board member of "Thrive by Five," recalls Shonkoff's address last year to the National Council of State Legislatures on the importance of early childhood development.

"There were conservative legislators at the conference who have opposed early learning legislation for years. One key legislator changed her entire view of early learning and the importance of the legislature acting," remembers Kagi. "Jack put all the pieces together--how early brain formation becomes the foundation for the rest of the learning years; the importance of relationships between adults and children; the terrible impact of abuse and neglect on brain development; and how all these factors affect success in school."

"Jack is invaluable to policy makers," Kagi says. "He can explain the research and how to apply it."

Christina Roache is the editor of Harvard Public Health NOW, the biweekly newsletter of HSPH, available online at www.hsph.harvard.edu/now.

Photo: Kent Dayton-HSPH

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