Article-S--A Perfect Lab(HUB)-001

Conventional wisdom says that children heal quickly. The reality is far less sunny.

Young children exposed to violence, abuse, neglect, and poverty are more likely to experience poor health as adults, including chronic and preventable diseases. These factors can also limit life potential. The more stress and trauma experienced in childhood, the greater the likelihood of school dropouts, incarceration, and chronic unemployment.

But trauma isn’t the only predictor of poor health later in life. Other social determinants, such as lack of access to nutritious food, neighborhoods without safe places to play outdoors, and environmental hazards like toxic air and soil quality also contribute negatively to health status in adulthood.

The answer, say early childhood development experts, may lie in innovative programs that help to avert the damage before it starts—programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership, which connects first-time parents to maternal and child health nurses. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) seeded the Partnership early on and has continued to provide support over the years. Through ongoing home visits and health education, the Partnership offers parents care and support that empowers them and transforms the lives of their children.

The quest for solutions like these is being spotlighted at the University of New Mexico, where scholars with the RWJF Center for Health Policy are looking at new ways to improve the health and education outcomes for young children. Over the past year, child welfare in New Mexico improved in only five of 16 areas—and actually worsened in one of the most critical: child poverty. According to the most recent KIDS COUNT Child Well-Being Index, more than half of working families in the state are poor, women of color are less likely to receive prenatal care, and more than 50 percent of Hispanic and 46 percent of Native American children are not enrolled in preschool or kindergarten. Similarly grim data confronts children from other states with significant Hispanic, African American and Indian populations.

Gabriel Sanchez, PhD, the Center’s director, says the paradigm can shift to create a healthier future for our children from the start.  Sanchez invited national and local researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to a national meeting to explore ways to improve early childhood health and development outcomes. The April symposium, Early Childhood Development & Health Symposium: The Intersection of Science, Policy, & Practice, marked the launch of the initiative. Later this summer, the Center will release a white paper drawn in part from the symposium’s findings and other expert research. Sanchez says New Mexico—which ranks 49th overall in the KIDS COUNT index—provides the perfect laboratory for examining the underlying causes of poor outcomes and identifying ways to improve them.

“We need solutions grounded in New Mexico’s rich social and cultural fabric,” Sanchez says. He wants to challenge assumptions and ask tough questions: “Does our understanding of human development include research on Native American and young Latino immigrant children? Are considerations of equity and social justice included in the research? How do early childhood education policies mitigate poverty and racial discrimination?”

RWJF, which funds the Center for Health Policy at UNM and its sister program at Meharry Medical College, is working to improve early childhood outcomes by connecting families with the tools and resources they need to be strong, resilient, and healthy. The Foundation continues to invest heavily in early childhood development, and views it as a crucial component of its initiative to build a Culture of Health for all Americans—one where being healthy and staying healthy is an easy choice.

Research from the Early Childhood Development & Health Symposium speakers is available here. Findings from the Symposium itself will be released later this year and will be available on the Center’s website.

For more than 40 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve health and health care. The Foundation is striving to build a national Culture of Health that will enable all to live longer, healthier lives now and for generations to come. Visit www.rwjf.org to learn more about RWJF and its work in early childhood development.