Child development key to economic growth

Posted Sept. 18, 2008, at 7:43 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s business leaders were advised that investing in early child care was one of the most important steps that can be taken to ensure strong economic growth and development.

Harvard professor Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff told the more than 150 men and women attending the Maine Development Foundation’s 30th annual meeting at the Augusta Civic Center during his keynote speech Thursday that a child’s brain begins absorbing knowledge in the first year of its life. He said it was critical to their growth and intellectual development to ensure that they have healthy interactions with others at that time. It was also crucial that their young lives be as stress-free as possible.

“The healthy development of all children really does benefit all of society. It provides a solid foundation for economic prosperity and makes responsible citizens and strong communities,” Shonkoff said. “The way a child grows up now is going to affect their ability to participate in society.”

Shonkoff is the Julius B. Richmond professor of Child Health and Development at the Harvard School of Public Health and Graduate School of Education. He also is chairman of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, a multi-university collaboration of leading scholars in neuroscience, psychology, pediatrics and economics.

Shonkoff said decades of scientific research has found that early life experiences get hard-wired into the brain. The studies have found that children who undergo high levels of stress at an early age generally have encountered problems later in life. Using charts and graphs, Shonkoff showed that children from less economically secure families learn at slower rates than those who are more fortunate and that it was difficult to reverse the pattern once it is established.

“There is something about early life stress that is absorbed in your body,” he said. “The poorer you are, the more health problems you have and the shorter you live.”

Because a “huge amount” of brain development occurs in early childhood, it was all but impossible to “go back and re-wire” the brain with good experiences and behaviors, he said.

The mission of the Maine Development Foundation is to foster sustainable, long-term economic growth for the state, and Shonkoff commended its members for their long history of strong support for education at all levels in Maine. He said the policymakers need to view the situation over the long term and not expect a quick fix to a problem that defines itself over time. He said that while there was no “magic bullet,” behaviors can be changed if they are identified at an early level and are corrected by qualified people.

Advising that “we can’t afford babysitting anymore,” Shonkoff said that policymakers should work to create private-public partnerships to invest in early childhood education if the state and country want to compete in the global market. He pointed out that China and India were world leaders in focusing on early childhood development. The dangers confronting children have to be addressed early in life for them to fit in a competitive world, he said.

Shonkoff described children as born learners and that it was scientifically proven that they react favorably to supportive relationships and good learning experiences. Taking a balanced approach to their emotional, social, cognitive and language needs was important to all of society, he said.

“This is the kind of investment that really requires thinking of this in legacy terms, it’s not short term,” he said. “This is the kind of investment for leaders with a sense of legacy and the future.”

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