Unleashing Our Children's Potential

I know a 2-year-old American girl named Olivia living in low-income housing with her mom. Olivia is overweight for her age due to her diet of high calorie, low-nutrient food and a lack of physical activity during the day. Her brother and her mom often fight over household responsibilities and money issues -- sometimes to the point of violence or near-violence.

Due to these circumstances, we know that Olivia -- at the young age of 2 -- is already heading down a troublesome path. She is at risk performing poorly in school, getting a chronic disease, and even dying prematurely.

Olivia, along with many of her peers, is the reason we've been hearing a lot about the importance of early childhood education from Hillary Clinton. We've been hearing about the "word gap" - whereby children from less affluent households hear significantly fewer words than their more affluent peers (roughly 30 million fewer words by age 3, according to one study).

Many current politicians, admirably, champion early education efforts. They often also champion efforts to explain to parents how to interact with their children, and support programs that provide access to healthy foods. The evidence shows that that such programs and efforts make a difference.

But what also makes a difference is the integration of these efforts. High-quality research shows that providing all of these services in isolation, at different points in the lifecycle, may not be enough to help children reach their full potential.

So what constitutes "enough"? A new policy brief from The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science at the New York Academy of Sciences, borne out of recent evidence-based research, indicates that integrating programs across sectors provides synergies. And the benefits go beyond the individual--they extend to society as a whole. Children who receive integrated interventions grow up to be adults who are more likely to be productive participants in the workforce, who stay healthier than their counterparts who don't receive integrated interventions, and ultimately use fewer governmental resources.

Hillary Clinton and others may want to look South to Chile, which has had great success with their program called Chile Crece Contigo ("Chile Grows with You"), which integrates healthcare, nutrition, education, and social protection, run by an interministerial body. This program starts screening mothers in pregnancy to identify potential risks to the development of offspring and it follows those vulnerable children through the first four years of their lives. Families are provided with nutrition, health, and parenting skills and resources to maximize their child's development. By the time these children get to school, they are ready and able to learn.

So if the benefits are so great--a belief shared by many of us in scientific fields--what's stopping us from simply integrating interventions here in the U.S.? Well, it turns out integration--with all its benefits--is not so simple to achieve, particularly in our country. One of the primary differences between the Chile example and our situation in the United States (and many other developed countries) is that we have a political system in which it's not possible to make wide-sweeping mandates at the national level. We simply can't summon the type of political will and support necessary to make integration possible through a national mandate.

How can we reap the proven benefits of integrated interventions here in the U.S.? Even if supported by national-level politicians, the answer has to be local -- States, cities, and even towns hold the key. They are uniquely capable of instituting the policies that can make integration happen. And political champions are what make policy changes happen in local government.

Those political champions need to learn from places that have done this successfully -- even places with very different governmental models. On the one hand there is no doubt that there are innovative local parenting programs and early childhood education models underway. However, I'm hard pressed to identify local examples of truly integrated programs in the United States. This is why I, along with more than 35 other scientists who specialize in nutrition or childhood development, are calling for integrated early child development programs, as described in the aforementioned policy brief. Given what the science of human development tells us, can we as a society afford to leave this call to action unanswered?

I end with a confession: there is no Olivia. There are millions of Olivias. And I believe all of them deserve the best chance to develop to their full potential. Their best chance lies in integrated programs that start very early on in life.