Jack Shonkoff, MD, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, states that half a century of developmental research and program evaluation has guided a variety of early childhood policies and practices that produce positive effects on the life prospects of children who face the burdens of significant adversity. Notwithstanding the documented ability to shift trajectories for vulnerable individuals, the magnitude of measured impacts has been variable and population-level effects have been difficult to achieve.
Drawing on advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and the behavioral sciences, this paper is designed to catalyze constructive discussion about the need to launch a new era in early childhood policy and services that will produce considerably larger impacts on the nation’s health than current best practices. Particular attention is focused on the hypothesis that substantially better outcomes for vulnerable, young children could be achieved by strengthening the resources and capabilities of the adults who care for them, rather than continuing to focus primarily on the provision of child-focused enrichment, parenting education, and family support. Central to achieving this goal is the need to create a vibrant research and development (“R&D”) dimension for the early childhood field that is grounded in science, supports strategic risk-taking, and capitalizes on opportunities to learn from interventions that don’t work.