TUCC conference

Separating good science from myth in early child development

Raising children, even child development experts acknowledge, is "mostly an art, with a little science."

But within the realm of that science is a tremendous amount of untapped knowledge that could be used to better the lives of children and their parents throughout the world, researchers say.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, says an interdisciplinary approach to early childhood development is critical. © Mark Morelli

"There are unbelievable examples of gaps between what we know and what we do," said Dr. Jack Shonkoff, dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Shonkoff was the keynote speaker February 19 at the Tufts University Center for Children's (TUCC) Conference on Interdisciplinary Approaches to Brain Development in Children. The conference looked at the interactions between scientific research, public policy and social practice; participants also discussed ways to increase collaboration on child development research among Tufts' different schools.

TUCC is an interdisciplinary, cross-school center dedicated to improving the lives of children and their families worldwide.

"The interdisciplinary approach to early childhood development is critical," said Shonkoff. "The knowledge base is fragmented, and there is a need for coordinated programs and policies."

Within the varied fields related to child development, "there exist separate literatures, separate funding, separate journals, separate professional associations," Shonkoff said. "They are not cross-fertilized as much as they could be. They need to be integrated in a critical way."

But, Shonkoff and others at the conference advised, an emphasis on interdisciplinary projects must not diminish the importance of "uni-disciplinary" research. There will always be a need for scholars and researchers to focus deeply on areas of specific expertise, Shonkoff said.

Along with Shonkoff, the conference participants included Dr. Howard Spivak, director of TUCC; Tufts Provost and Senior Vice President Jamshed Bharucha; Johanna Dwyer, director of the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts-New England Medical Center; Dr. Karen Miller of the Center for Children with Special Needs at Floating Children's Hospital; and Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts' Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development.

'Neurons to neighborhoods'
Shonkoff chaired the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development for the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. The committee's report, "From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development," reviews the existing research in neurobiology and the behavioral and social sciences, and offers recommendations for policies and practice.

While there is a wealth of "good science" that can help guide policies and practices regarding child welfare, Shonkoff said, there also exists an unfortunate situation in which "there is a lot of mythology mixed in with the science," he said. "This creates serious problems."

For example, he said, popular wisdom has come to accept the idea of a "critical period" in brain development that takes place during the first three years of life. Yet, "there is not a shred of evidence to define a 'critical period' for development," Shonkoff said, stressing that the brain continues to develop neurons throughout life. "The window does not shut at age three."

Or, take the still-ongoing debate about the primacy of "nature vs. nurture"—a question that Shonkoff says is now "simplistic and scientifically obsolete."

"Environmental influences clearly affect brain development, beginning well before birth and continuing long into adulthood," he said. What the research does show, Shonkoff said, is that for children with vulnerabilities, early intervention programs can improve the odds for better outcomes, but effective intervention programs are "rarely simple, inexpensive or easy to implement.

"At a time when scientific advances could be used to strengthen early childhood policies and practices, knowledge is frequently dismissed or ignored, and children are paying the price," Shonkoff said.

Physician's viewpoint
Miller, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Tufts School of Medicine, offered the physician's viewpoint. While doctors and other medical personnel are "uniquely positioned" to identify children at developmental or psychosocial risk, she said, they are also often poorly prepared to notice or address these issues.

Pediatrician Karen Miller says "there is often a major disconnect between physicians and other disciplines." © Mark Morelli

Among the difficulties is the disease-based orientation of medical education and the limited training and exposure that many physicians have to developmental neuroscience and psychosocial issues, she said.

"There is often a major disconnect between physicians and other disciplines," she said. And physicians can also "perpetuate myths, as well as educate."

The situation has improved as medical schools have included more human growth and development courses for medical students and increased attention to psychosocial wellness, she said. In addition, there are two new board-certified subspecialties, neurodevelopmental disabilities and developmental and behavioral pediatrics.

"Physicians need to be actively involved at all stages of their careers," Miller said. "And it's not just pediatricians who need this information."

Internal communication
The panelists also addressed the specific needs of academics at Tufts and what could be done to further cooperative projects and general knowledge among disciplines. Most agree that there are difficulties in communication—and differences in culture—among the three Tufts campuses, particularly between Medford/Somerville and Boston.

"How can it be that our campuses are so separated?" asked Wolf, professor of child development.

Unfortunately, faculty at both campuses sometimes make assumptions about colleagues based on what type of degrees they have, or in which school they hold an appointment, said Spivak, professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine.

The challenge, he said, is for people on all campuses to think about "stepping out of our boxes and silos. There is a value to the difference pieces of our institution; we complement each other. We all bring added value to the work we do here," he said. "It's the mix of that that makes a university like this a dynamic and exciting place to be."

Dwyer, a professor at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the School of Medicine, also stressed the need for more networking opportunities between the campuses.

She suggested funding specifically designed to launch and sustain interdisciplinary research projects. And, she said, researchers from all the universities and institutions throughout the Boston area should be encouraged to work together.