Children's Early Needs Seen as Going Unmet

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Pulling together decades of child-development research, a report from the National Research Council says that current policies and practices are not adequately meeting the needs of young children in a rapidly changing society.

"From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development," which is due to be released this week, urges parents and professionals to pay closer attention to the social, emotional, and mental-health needs of young children. It calls for "a new national dialogue focused on rethinking the meaning of both shared responsibility for children and strategic investment in their future."

The report also says that researchers no longer need to make the case that early-childhood intervention works. The challenge is to design effective programs for children who are vulnerable because of poverty, abuse, or developmental problems, it says.

"When people talk about this issue of getting children ready to learn, the issue is children are born ready to learn, but they are also born wired for feelings," said Jack P. Shonkoff, the dean of the Heller Graduate School at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Mr. Shonkoff is the chairman of the committee that wrote the report.

Jack P. Shonkoff

The project is the result of two years of work by the 17-person committee, which includes experts from the fields of psychology, biology, education, and pediatrics.

Entering new territory, the 500-plus-page report suggests that children's mental health needs to be addressed from the earliest weeks of life.

"No one believed that it was possible for infants to suffer from depression, but now we have evidence that they can," Mr. Shonkoff said. But he added that training everyone from medical professionals to preschool teachers to recognize those needs is a monumental task.

Links to Other Work

The report from the NRC, a division of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences, dovetails with the ongoing work of other groups focusing on the needs of young children.

Just last month, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher convened a meeting in Washington on children's mental-health needs. About 300 people, representing the scientific community, advocacy organizations, and other fields, came together to develop recommendations; a report from the proceedings is expected to be released in the next several weeks.

At the Sept. 19 gathering, Dr. Satcher said: "We need a broad system to improve the identification, diagnosis, and treatment of children with potential mental- health problems. And we need to remember that many people—parents, primary-care providers, teachers—may play a role in pointing to a problem."

Also last month, the Child Mental Health Foundations and Agencies Network, a consortium including government agencies and private foundations, released "A Good Beginning: Sending America's Children to School With the Social and Emotional Competence They Need to Succeed."

That report argues that parents and educators need to focus at least as much on helping children to become confident, friendly, and able to work with others as they do on teaching letters, numbers, and other cognitive skills. ( "School Readiness Seen To Hinge on Social, Emotional Adjustment," Sept. 13, 2000.)

Nature and Nurture

The authors of the NRC report hope that their report will bring an end to the confusion surrounding brain development during the first years of life.

Early experiences, the report says, matter in that certain environmental factors and substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, lead, radiation, and chronic stress, can inhibit healthy brain development. Visual and auditory problems early in life are also cause for concern.

But the report stresses that the brain remains flexible and open to change throughout the life span. "Assertions that the die has been cast by the time the child enters school are not supported by neuroscience evidence and can create unwarranted pessimism about the potential efficacy of interventions that are initiated after the preschool years," it says.

Charles A. Nelson, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said he thinks the report will also help end the debate about nature vs. nurture.

"We should not be thinking about genes or environment," he said. "We should be thinking about genes and environment."

The authors call for more diligence from the government toward ensuring that out-of-home care for young children is improved. And they address the role of early-intervention programs, such as home visitations and early-childhood education.

Well-planned demonstration programs that use trained professionals to deliver services have been successful, but low-budget initiatives that don't have clearly defined goals are not very helpful, the report concludes.

Finally, the report brings together growing evidence about the effects of poverty on young children, particularly on their chances of completing high school.

"This analysis suggests," the report says, "that for children in families experiencing economic hardship, income in the preschool years matters more for children's education attainment than does income later in childhood."

Vol. 20, Issue 5, Page 3

Published in Print: October 4, 2000, as Children's Early Needs Seen as Going Unmet
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