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Why the dean of early childhood experts wants to get beyond the brain []


By Ryan White, Center for Health Journalism, July 23, 2020

Harvard’s Jack Shonkoff, a luminary in the field of early childhood, has spent years showing that events in the earliest years of life have profound implications for how budding brains develop, and in turn, shape a child’s later potential at school and work.

Now, Shonkoff says it’s time to connect the brain to the rest of the body.

“The message now is to say that there is a revolution going on in molecular biology and genomics and in the biology of adversity and resilience,” he told journalists at the 2020 National Fellowship this week. “If we start recognizing it’s not just about the brain, that the impact of experiences and the impact of stress activation also affects the immune system, metabolic systems, and therefore the impacts are not just on school readiness and educational achievement, but they are also on physical and mental health outcomes.”

That means Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, is rowing against the public perception that early childhood is all about education and the policies that promote it. While he’s still among the first to say that early life events shape brain development and related traits such as the ability to direct attention, the stakes are ultimately far bigger in his view.

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