Shonkoff Challenges NC to Regain Early Childhood Leadership Role for 21st Century

Dr. Jack Shonkoff

Dr. Jack Shonkoff speaks at the NC Early Childhood Summit.

March 4, 2019 – A renowned researcher on early childhood encouraged North Carolina advocates to go beyond traditional thinking to improve the health, safety and well-being of the state’s children.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, the director of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, was the keynote speaker for the NC Early Childhood Summit on Feb. 27, where Governor Roy Cooper and NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen launched an Early Childhood Action Plan. The plan is an effort to galvanize coordinated action across public and private stakeholders throughout North Carolina to make measurable changes in early childhood outcomes. 

Kristin Cooper, the First Lady of North Carolina, introduced Shonkoff and said he has put decades of research into “what some of us might call common sense.” She noted that he puts a vast amount of numbers and science on children’s development into understandable terms. 

Shonkoff kicked off his address by noting that “North Carolina is a very special place in the history of early childhood in this country,” with former Governor Jim Hunt having led the creation of Smart Start, as well as the implementation of Abecedarian Project. But he said North Carolina ought to be regaining its leadership role for 21st century early childhood development. 

He challenged the audience to go beyond traditional thinking in early childhood. 

“In addition to being a moral responsibility and a smart investment, [early childhood] is an incredible intellectual and scientific challenge right now, and we ignore that dimension of it at our peril,” he said. 

“I’m going to be bold,” he told the audience. “I’m going to make a bold assertion that the field doesn’t have as much of a future moving forward if we just rest on 20th century knowledge.”

He focused much of his talk around data and science. He highlighted that study results demonstrate human variation when it comes to early childhood programs that work well. 

Previously, interventions in early childhood were focused on what had the best impact, on average. Shonkoff said early childhood advocates must instead consider why certain interventions work for specific populations, yet have negative effects on others. Using the intervention that works best for most can have a minimal, or even dangerous, impact on some children. 

“There are differences in how children in the same environment respond to that environment,” said Shonkoff.  

Shonkoff also outlined the science behind stress. Scientific knowledge should be informing policies and interventions in support of children’s development in their early years. 

“Let’s reduce those sources of stress on young children, if we can, and let’s build supportive relationships that will protect children,” Shonkoff noted. “And that means let’s build those skills in adults – not just parents, but people who work in early childhood programs.” 

A pivotal moment of Shonkoff’s keynote was when he discussed the impact of racism on young children. He outlined differentiation in health, poverty, and other outcomes that are evident throughout children’s early years and into adulthood along lines of race, but cautioned against making assumptions about any biological factors at play

He challenged the audience, who replied with applause: “This is not about race: this is about racism.” 

A recording of Shonkoff’s address is available for viewing.