That's the unmistakable message from the past two months as we brought leading experts to Memphis and asked them: what gives our children their best chances for healthy, positive futures? Their answers should inspire our best efforts for optimal brain development for every child.
In February, Robin Karr-Morse, author of Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease, could not have been clearer: If Memphis is serious about its future; it has to be serious about early childhood interventions. Toxic stress is "the elephant in the room," because it triggers physical health and mental health issues that last a lifetime, she said.
In March, University of British Columbia professors, Dr. Daniel Goldowitz and Dr. Clyde Hertzman, among others, underscored that message, emphasizing the ways that early experiences in life like abuse, overly harsh discipline, family strife, and emotional neglect can impact depression, drug abuse, anxiety, diabetes, health disease, and obesity later in life. Poverty is a predictor of future health problems for children, and as a result, no city has more compelling reasons to target early childhood development than Memphis – medical, economic, educational, social, and civic.
Tolerable stress in and of itself is not bad, if high-quality, caring parenting helps a child develop the skill sets to cope with and address it. As for families themselves, there is a high correlation between family function and child development. Young children feel high levels of stress within the family. These children need love and reassurance, demonstrated through hugs and nurturing.
The crucial time is between conception and three years, when the brain is developing at an astonishing rate, and it is in this time that the return on the investment is the greatest. Later, the brain is less pliable, and while it is possible to modify behavior, it is not possible to rewire disrupted brain circuits. In other words, while investments in children are always important, the smartest, most cost-effective time to change a child's future is in the first three years of his life.
The evidence is incontrovertible, and it's why Mayor Wharton, as part of his 100 Days plan, was right when he set early childhood interventions and investments as the top priority for his new 21-person education committee. "This special committee will evaluate the best strategies for early childhood development and make recommendations for investing the money now allocated to school funding so our children are ready for school and life."
Shelby County Mayor Luttrell also understands the importance of early childhood interventions and investments. He has met with researchers and strategists at The Urban Child Institute on several occasions to learn more about the science and data. Additionally, the administrator of the Shelby County Mayor's Office of Early Childhood and Youth co-chairs another important effort in this community – the Early Success Coalition – a coalition of young children's service providers tasked to improve and better coordinate the early childhood service delivery system.
The Urban Child Institute's Barbara Holden Nixon is a member of Mayor Wharton's committee, and with her background and experience in early childhood advocacy, public policy, and clinical services, she will promote consideration of the existing findings in neuroscience, behavioral studies, and economic modeling that together shine a light on the best strategies to turn around the lives of Memphis' most vulnerable children and Memphis' worst problems. Additionally, The Urban Child Institute's team of researchers and strategists are also available to present the facts, the urgency, and some successful interventions in early childhood development.
Ms. Karr-Morse challenged Memphis to be the national leader in these issues, and it appears more and more that we are perfectly poised and aligned to take up this issue. There's no time like the present.