From Neurons to Neighborhoods was grounded in four overarching themes:
1. All children are born wired for feelings and ready to learn.
2. Early environments matter and nurturing relationships are essential.
3. Society is changing and the needs of young children are not being addressed.
4. Interactions among early childhood science, policy, and practice are problematic and demand dramatic rethinking.
The first two themes have held up well over the past decade, said Jack Shonkoff in his concluding remarks at the workshop. Researchers have learned much more about development of the brain in early childhood, and this understanding will continue to expand in the future. They also have achieved a much deeper and richer understanding of the importance of early environments and nurturing relationships. “Two of the four themes have stood the test of time,” Shonkoff said.
The other two themes have become even more urgent in the years since From Neurons to Neighborhoods appeared. These were the two themes that put the scientific principles in a social context, and society has been changing even faster than it has in the past. Shonkoff cited one alarming example: the rise of child poverty over the past decade, with bleak prospects for significant improvement in the near future. Many people have lost their jobs in the recent recession and will not get them back for a long time. And high school graduation rates are still only about 50 percent in most inner
cities, and a high school diploma alone is no longer a ticket to a good job in U.S. society.
Shonkoff said that he would now change the wording of the fourth theme slightly. Rather than saying that interactions among early childhood science, policy, and practice are problematic, he would now say that they are complex. That is to say, these dynamics are somewhat less problematic than they were in the past because there is much more interaction among the three sectors. However, these increased interactions have demonstrated how complex both the problems and the potential solutions really are.
Science has informed policy and practice in invigorating and productive ways. But the flow of information has been largely one way, in that policy and practice have not much influenced the kinds of questions researchers are asking. The challenge for the scientific community is to respond to new ideas that are driving progress in the field. How exactly does experience affect health or learning? What are the features of effective interventions? The policy community will be much more willing to invest in early childhood interventions if it understands why a certain program produces a positive outcome.
The early childhood development community can be simultaneously proud and dissatisfied with how far it has come, Shonkoff said. Science, policy, and practice have all made great advances in the past 10 years. The remaining challenge is to continue to translate new knowledge into new ideas that will dramatically improve the lives of children and their prospects for the future.