Neuroscience has yielded new understandings of how the brain can affect mental illness, addiction, reaction to trauma, and other psychosocial conditions. Dr. Jack Shonkoff, who runs the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, is at the forefront of the movement to figure out what neurobiological findings could mean for the treatment of at-risk children. His most ambitious collaboration to date is the Frontiers of Innovation initiative, which draws on the biological, behavioral and social sciences in hopes of producing breakthrough outcomes for children facing adversity.
A doctoral candidate at the Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW), Kathryne (Kat) Brewer and I were pleased to have the chance to interview Dr. Shonkoff about the initiative for CSSW’s podcast program, Social Work Matters. The night before we recorded the episode, Dr. Shonkoff had delivered our School’s 2014 Lucille N. Austin Lecture, in which he talked about the discovery that children who are exposed to high levels of stress through abuse or neglect have trouble developing the circuitry in the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) necessary for controlling their impulses and solving challenges—the “executive functions” that would help them succeed in adulthood. He also spoke about ways this could be addressed through research, policy and practice.
During our podcast, we went a little deeper into why Dr. Shonkoff is so determined to take findings like this one and try to build a new brain-based model of family and child welfare practice. He told us that before he went into academia and was still practicing as a pediatrician, he had gravitated toward helping families with children with disabilities. That experience had taught him there are limits to what a care provider can do in the face of overwhelming odds, but he also came away thinking he should not be satisfied with just trying to make the best of the situation.
This conclusion has colored his feelings about the fiftieth anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, he went on to say. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to demean the work done in the past five decades and the progress made. On the other hand, he’s “not happy” with how far we’ve come, particularly as it affects children. He said he would propose using the best of what we have out there as a starting point to take anti-poverty programs to the next level. Some of the principles we developed 50 years ago have withstood the test of time. But we have also made some new findings that need to be incorporated.
For more information on the Frontiers of Innovation initiative, I suggest that you listen to our 20-minute podcast. Dr. Shonkoff is particularly enlightening in his responses to Kat’s questions about how to ensure that research findings influence policy and how to work across disciplines. He is also unusually open to the social work perspective, having at one point served as dean of the Heller School of Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University.