Enrichment + Protection = Healthy Development

Such is a key take-home message from the Early Childhood Summit 2013: Innovation and Opportunity - held in Boston on Friday, April 5th as part of the ongoing celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Boston Children’s Museum.

This meeting brought together leaders from pediatrics, developmental science, public health, the non-profit sector, and top business leaders in the Boston region. The focus was on sharing new ideas about the challenges that some kids and families face, along with possible creative solutions to ensure that kids have early experiences that serve as a platform for healthy and adaptive development. And the idea of thinking about “enrichment” and “protection” as critical components of a child’s rearing environment particularly resonated with me.

This idea was offered by Jack P. Shonkoff, MD, who is the Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. As discussed by Dr. Shonkoff, “enrichment” refers to all the good things parents should be doing in the early years to promote social, emotional, and cognitive development. These are the fundamental building blocks of parenting, including spending lots of time talking to babies and toddlers, being emotionally responsive and engaged, and promoting and supporting curiosity and play. But Dr. Shonkoff emphasized – using the platform of neuroscience research – how critical it is that babies and toddlers also be protected from the toxic effects of excessive stress. Overexposure to harsh rearing environments – including those characterized by overt discord, anger, hostility, and criticism – can take a psychological toll in the early years which can have lasting effects due to the neurodevelopmental sensitivity to extreme stress. Even babies and toddlers can show stress responses that get turned on too much – and don’t shut down quick enough – which predicts a host of problems down the road, both in terms of cognitive and social functioning as well as physical health.

Jack P. Shonkoff, MD, Harvard University

By integrating the concepts of enrichment and protection, we have a framework that simultaneously emphasizes both the good things that parents should be doing lots of, and the bad things that parents shouldn’t do much at all. For those of us who study kids – and in particular track kids from infancy through adulthood – we keep seeing more and more evidence that those early years matter greatly in terms of influencing brain development at a critical period of life. Putting effort into enrichment and providing protection against toxic stress is indeed an equation that predicts healthy development (physical and psychological) from the early years all the way into adulthood.

Photo of Jack P. Shonkoff, MD, addressing the Early Childhood Summit 2013: Innovation and Opportunity meeting (April 5, 2013, Boston, MA) courtesy of Gus Freedman

 

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