Child Development Scientists Address National Summit on America’s Children

On May 22, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) brought attention to the science of childhood development by sponsoring the National Summit on America’s Children.

On May 22, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) brought attention to the science of childhood development by sponsoring the National Summit on America’s Children. The summit was chaired by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor and co-chair of the House Steering and Policy Committee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CA), co-chair of the House Steering and Policy Committee, and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA). Three panels of scientists from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, pediatrics, economics, behavioral medicine, and social work were invited to share recent research findings in the science of brain development, early learning, child health and mental health, and the impacts of social programs to address poverty and child development.

“Great strides have been made in understanding how children’s brains are shaped and developed, how positive behaviors can be encouraged, and how investments in early childhood create success in later years. We must ensure that our policies match the latest research and that families are given what they need to take advantage of these scientific advances,” stated Speaker Pelosi. Congressional leaders hoped the Summit would be a first step in making certain that federal policies affecting children reflect the latest scientific developments.

The event featured a number of psychological scientists and began with an overview of early childhood development and learning, including the important role that healthy social relationships play in normal brain development, from psychologist Charles Nelson from Harvard Medical School. Megan Gunnar from the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development discussed the role of stress in normal development and the dangers of chronic stress to normal brain development. Gunnar testified that infants and toddlers could experience toxic levels of chronic stress from a variety of situations, such as maternal mental illness, abuse, neglect, poverty, homelessness, or witnessing violence. Without early interventions, infants living in these environments are at higher risks not only for a variety of mental disorders and substance abuse, but also cardiovascular disease, as stress hormones impact all organs of the body.

To address the science of early learning, psychologist Oscar A. Barbarin of the University of North Carolina discussed the importance of studying both the family environment and the caregiver environment as working parents increasingly rely on either formal or informal daycare arrangements. Barbarin added that language rich interactions, exposure to books, opportunities to learn and explore objects, and intentional instruction that promotes inquiry are the qualities that best facilitate early learning. Access to high quality daycare is not equal, however, and many children are left in caregiver situations that lack these qualities. Barbarin is particularly interested in ethnic minority children and English language learners, who face additional challenges to acquiring cognitive, social and emotional skills, and arrive at school using fewer words than their peers. He recommended increasing support for intensive preschool programs, resources for teacher training and professional development, a national research strategy for educational research and development, and a national initiative for boys of color to address the problems that begin in preschool but have long-term effects on their rates of employment, divorce, and incarceration.

Highlighting the importance of early childhood mental health, Jane Knitzer, Director of the National Center for Children in Poverty, explained that infant mental health refers to the age appropriate development of infants and toddlers and their ability to experience, regulate and manage emotions; relate to adults and peers in close and secure interpersonal relationships; and explore and learn from their environment. According to Knitzer, the need for access to mental health services for younger children is evident from the growing number of children displaying challenging behaviors. Poverty and other parental factors such as paternal depression, domestic violence, harsh parenting, and maltreatment increase the risk of aggression or other challenging behaviors in children, and there is little access to any therapies that target the family.

These panelists were joined by other experts in childhood development and public policy such as Lawrence Aber of New York University and University of Chicago economist James Heckman. Heckman stressed the overwhelming influence of the family environment on childhood development and the need for early interventions so that children can develop not only the requisite cognitive skills, but also the critical social, emotional, and motivation competencies that lead to success in school. According to Heckman, nearly all cost-benefit analyses ignore the social-emotional and mental health benefits of early childhood programs such as Early Head Start, and the focus on only cognitive benefits leads to a fundamental underestimation of their benefits.

More information about the Summit can be found on Nancy Pelosi's Speaker website.