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Ooey Gooey, Inc. » Notes from Workshops I Attended » Dr Jack Shonkoff, keynote, Whitearth Conference, 2012

Dr Jack Shonkoff, keynote, Whitearth Conference, 2012

Dr. Shonkoff co-author of Neurons to Neighborhoods

Also the Dir of Harvard’s center on the developing child


Whitearth Conference, Minnesota, August 2012




What does science have to say about this story?


Tell a story about what the latest research is saying.  Where might the field go next because of the science?


A lot of the science in Neurons to Neighborhoods is (his words) “history” (12 yrs old).


Let’s use science to say WHY what all of you do is important.  Use the science to think about what is next.  What is #ece going to look like 5-20 years from now.  With many of you being at forefront of this.


The foundation of a successful society is built in early childhood.



Child welfare

Economic development


Genes are influenced by the environment.

Environment and experiences direct the genes.


The science is sitting here waiting to be used.


Bring science to a social justice agenda.


Too much fragmentation within the system.


One minute crash course in neeuroscience:


Experiences build brain architecture VIDEO

Genes provide the blueprint

But experiences drive the connections


Brains are built over time

Occurs well before birth

At birth most of the brain cells are there, but the connections are not yet formed

Connections occur with experiences within the environment

700 new synapses (connections) every second (in a newborn)

the brain over produces connections in the beginning and then prunes the circuits that it is not going to need (sounds never heard before) (skills not valued in the environment in which you are raised) (etc)


this is a highly genetically programmed system


how the circuits are made are directed by the ENV and EXP which are influenced by the people (relationships) within said ENV.


when ENV is stable, predictable and responsive the brain makes many circuits


the people within the ENV are crucial!


Neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to address new challenges – decreases over time. The brain is more flexible in the beginning.  More connections and more specific as it gets older.



By 9-12 mos of age, the brain is losing ability to speak a new language without an accent – can still learn the lang, but will have accent.


you never stop being able to learn new things – it just gets harder.



What happens in tough circumstances – when needs are NOT being met:


“these data are taken”


by the time you get 3-4 year olds with 5-7 risk factors you have 100% of those children showing dev delays.


Risk factors for adult heart disease are embedded in adverse childhood EXP::

In children with 7-8 adverse experiences the odds ratio of heart disease increased – 3x’s greater incidence of having a heart attack, strokes, hypertension, cancer, depression, substance abuse, etc.




Biological “memories” link maltreatment in childhood to greater risk of adult heart disease – New Zealand study:


At age 32 (1100 pp) c-reactive protein study

15% elevated (yet no real adverse conditions) had elevated c-reactive proteins

those with depression > 25% had elevated c-reactive proteins

maltreated as children > 31% had elevated c-reactive proteins

history of depression and being maltreated as children > 45% had elevated c-reactive proteins


there is an association bet EXP and elevated c-reactive proteins


Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development VIDEO

Children with lots of stress have systems that are constantly on high-alert

Nurturing, Stable and Engaging ENVs can put a stressed child back into balance


**mirrors BRAIN RULES


three levels of stress response:


(the body’s response to stress – it’s an important system, but is not designed to be ON all the time)


LEVEL ONE: Positive Stress – some stress is good for development, need to develop coping mechanisms.  Brief activation of the stress response system.


Brief increase in heart rate, mild elevations in stress hormone levels. Doesn’t last long bc adults assist children in managing and handling said stress (buffers).


LEVEL TWO: Tolerable Stress.  Death of a family member, natural disaster, serious, temporary response buffered by supportive relationships.


LEVEL THREE:  Toxic Stress.  Persistent elevation of stress response.  The absence of protective relationships.


THOUGHT FROM ME: So I’d guess that in the wrong ENV, pos stress can turn into toxic stress.


Early Life Experiences are built into our bodies.


When early EXP are supportive and nurturing, the brain builds sturdy architecture.

But when they have ADVERSITY chronic toxic stress that can lead to long term problems and disruptions in brain circuits, metabolic systems, cardiac systems…


He said medical circles have been talking about this, but they have not yet connected the dots to #ece


How do we take THIS (above) and connect to ECE??



The current framework  guiding ECE policy/practice is this:

Parent ed, nutrition, good EXP, health promoting ENV will produce a healthy dev trajectory.


(he said this emerged in the 60’s w/ head start and war on poverty and as a foundation still holds pretty solid.)


However, the current level of adversity is pressing down on this trajectory and we instead have an increase in impaired health and development.


Building an enhanced theory of change that balances enrichment and protection:


Creating a new paradigm for ece policy and practice:


2 dimensions:

1. early EXP affect health AND life long learning; ece policy is NOT just the job of Ed Dept; but also Dept of health

2. healthy dev requires protection and enrichment


how are we buffering children from adverse conditions?




generating hypothesis to guide new intervention strategies:


  1. providing protection and enrichment to the kids means giving more than just information to providers.  Capacity building for adults.  Just being told what to do doesn’t mean you can do it!!! How do we get beyond just INFO delivery to folks who are working with kids (parents and providers). Manage the challenge of a household with young children in it.  Executive function of children and adults. Currently not built into PD… (Mind in the Making)
  2. at the same time for same money with same strategies as we build EF within parents we then send people into community to get jobs with strong EF skills = better jobs. Parent capacity building enhances employability and economic stability
  3. strong neighborhoods reduce the burdens of adversity.  Community interventions that are targeting sources of toxic stress are investments.




Focusing greater attention on building the brains EF system which he parallels to an air traffic control center.


EF and self-regulation (pre-frontal cortex)



LIGHTBULB! This is the slide (air traffic control) that ellen galinsky showed at PDI with her MITM presentation!


Adults cannot teach EF/SR to children if they do not have them!


3-5 yrs old – huge surge in EF/SR development

another spurt bet 15-30 (Parents! New teachers!)


we are giving advice when we need to be modeling skills.


EF skills present an extended development window.


Long term outcomes

Better ed achiev & economic outcomes

Better outcomes in health

Better physical and mental health



Prevention to these items starts in #ece

Everything is about genes/ENV & EXP interactions


Nature vs nurture is a dead issue in science


Genes are your starting point

Exp/env is where you’ll go



FAS is #1 cause of mental retardation in USA



Three takeaways:


Environment of relationships

The brain doesn’t care where it gets the nurturing!


The physical env = SAFE and SUPPORTIVE  loving adults don’t mean a hill of beans if there is lead in the water


Proper Nutrition it’s not just about not going to McD. Metabolism is influenced by stress.  Huge obesity problem in USA



It’s a marriage of commitment and skills.



Policies and programs:

There are so many ways to strengthen capacity >> community private and government agencies need to be held accountable to knowing how they are contributing to the whole picture.


It’s not just more money to the area is more important.  How are each strengthening the whole. TELL me how you are contributing to this??


An integrated science-based logic model could inform more effective ECE policies and programs.


FROM ME: Will ECE be redefined as “preconception” – grade 3?




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