Political Vision and Leadership

“Scientists can now credibly say that the early childhood years-from birth to age five-lay the foundation for later economic productivity, responsible citizenship and a lifetime of sound physical and mental health. Conversely, deep poverty, abuse, neglect and exposure tin early childhood can all lead to toxic stress in children. When it occurs, toxic stress can actually damage the architecture of the developing brain, leading to disrupted circuits and a weakened foundation for future learning and health.

Thanks to a remarkable convergence of new scientific knowledge about the developing brain, the human genome, and the effects of early experiences on later learning, behaviout and health, these are not hypothetical questions. We have the knowledge to secure our future by improving the life prospects of all young children. What is needed now is political vision and leadership.

Neuroscience and the biology of stress help us to begin to understand how poverty and other adversities are literally built into our bodies. We can thus comprehend why children born into such circumstances have more problems in school, are more likely to commit crimes, and are more prone to heart disease, diabetes and a host of other physical and mental illnesses later in life.

Children burdened by significant economic insecurity, discrimination or maltreatment benefit most from effective interventions. In developing countries, shifting the focus of international investments from an exclusive focus on child survival to integrating that with early childhood health and development offers greater promise than addressing either domain alone.

Neuroscience, child development and the economics of human capital formation all point to the same conclusion: Creating the right conditions for early childhood development is far more effective than trying to fix problems later.

Finally, leadership is about more than smart economic decisions. It is also about moral responsibility, wisdom, judgment and courage – and about leveraging knowledge to promote positive social change.

The gap between what we know and what we do is growing and increasingly unconscionable. The time for leadership for vulnerable children is now.

Would [political leaders] have the political courage to act now in the best long term interest of their people? Or would they become mired in ineffective, poorly funded attempts to obtain quick results, and then say it couldn’t be done?”

Excerpted from “Preventing Toxic Stress in Children” The Straits Times Thursday May 7, 2009, PageA24, Review, By Jack Schonkoff. The writer is Professor of Child Health and Development, and Director of the Centre on the developing Child, at Harvard University.

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