The extraordinary challenges of 2020 have brought forward front and center the deep-rooted injustice that affect the lives of children and families, as well as the health of the nation. Transformative change at a societal level requires unearthing these embedded inequalities.

Founding Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. outlines the following manner in which this issue may more fully be addressed as he writes, “more robust early childhood policies and programs must be part of this change because significant adversity in the lives of young children can disrupt the development of the brain and other biological systems. These disruptions can undermine young children’s opportunities to achieve their full potential.”

Time has arrived for a shift in the mindset for the early childhood field as part of a broader movement for social change. Here are a few of the evidence-based research findings from Harvard University including, “Connecting the Brain to the Rest of the Body: Early Childhood Development and Lifelong Health Are Deeply Intertwined” which may be beneficial in creating innovative solutions to this inequality.

1. Support expectant mothers during pregnancy and families with young children to build a strong foundation for lifelong health as much as for school readiness. Childcare, early education, healthcare, social services, family incomes, and home visiting for families affect both health and learning. Twenty-first century biological sciences show evidence that foundations of lifelong health are built early, with increasing evidence of the importance of the prenatal period as well as the first few years after birth.

2. Provide primary care practices that focus explicitly on the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) on whole child development and fully integrated into the early childhood ecosystem.

All biological systems in the body interact with each other and adapt to the contexts in which a child is developing. Systems relating to brain development, heart and lung function, digestion, energy production, fighting infection, and physical growth are all interconnected and influence each other’s development. Each system “reads” the environment, prepares to respond, and shares that information with other systems. Each system then “signals back” to the others through feedback loops that are already functioning at birth.

Excessive and persistent adverse childhood experiences can overload biological systems and lead to long-term consequences. Repeated high alert activations lead to greater risk for stress-associated diseases into adult life. Among these diseases are cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and a range of mental well being concerns. The brain’s developing circuits are highly sensitive to the disruptive effects of elevated stress activation.

3. An integrated approach of health and education policy. The brain is indeed connected to the rest of the body, yet until now, health and education have been separated in policy. An integrated approach to confronting the inter-related origins of disparities in each area offers a forward direction to greater positive impact. Science informed insights and what Strengthening Families Research calls an “upstream approach” of combined with the lived experiences of families and communities, the expertise of service providers and a diversity of political perspectives among policymakers and civic leaders can lead to creative thinking and more effective action.

This “upstream approach” further increases the protective factors such as parenting skills and child development while decreasing the risk factors such as mental well being concerns, and drug and alcohol use. “Addressing the early childhood stressors that lead to chronic, lifelong inflammation might dramatically reduce the need for costly treatments for a wide range of multiple health conditions including cardiovascular disease,” according to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

“Remediation may be possible at any age, but outcomes are better and easier to achieve when interventions are provided earlier and promoting the healthy development of biological systems from the beginning is better, and more cost effective, than trying to fix them later,” the council stated.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, yet nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin

You may easily recall the Gospel Matthew’s familiar passage of Jesus going out in a boat with his disciples and the sea’s turn for the worse. The disciples are terrified by the dark sky, the winds blowing hard as the waves come up over the sides of the boat, yet all the while Jesus is asleep. They call on him to wake up. The storm of injustice isn’t scary to those who are asleep. The inability to see the present inequality of power regardless of race, age, gender, or other happenings of today, either by choice or by ignorance, is a position of unearned privilege. It is time to wake from our sleep and take action to calm the storm just as Jesus did. It’s time for everyone who has been asleep to get up and rebuke the wind and the sea, and perhaps then we collectively can co-create a calm.

“The opposite of love is not hate, rather indifference” — Elie Wiesel.

For more scientific based research on the equity lens go to wwwdeveloplingchild.harvard.edu or strengthening

Sandy Block-Hansen, MS, is the St. Francis Healthcare Campus Family Footprints Coordinator, a Catholic Health Initiative Mission and Ministry program created to support, inform, and offer resources to parents in the role of parenting. She can be reached at sandrablock-hansen@catholichealth.net or 218-643-0475.

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