At a Thursday symposium called "Applying the Science of Early Childhood Development to State Policy and Practice: A Case for Action and a Call for Innovation," speaker after speaker made the point that the science grows more compelling every day, and we need to act on it now.

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Early life experiences are built into our brains and bodies.

Lots of negative stress for a baby can show up later as poor school performance, high blood pressure, risky behavior.

At a symposium Thursday, speaker after speaker made the point that the science grows more compelling every day, and we need to act on it now.

Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff showed a video of a mother and infant. The child is in a high chair and the two are facing each other, having a great time giggling and gesturing, making sounds and making faces.

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Then the mother goes blank and silent.

The baby tries everything to get her attention back, waving, bouncing, screeching, and growing increasingly distressed. The mother keeps staring blankly forward until the baby bursts into tears.

It was an experiment. It was painful to watch, but it showed the impact of neglect on a baby.

In the video, the mother soothed her child, and everything was OK again, but sometimes in real life there is no soothing. The child’s brain learns not to expect comfort, and it adapts to the kind of world it can expect, a harsh one, and its body produces stress chemicals that may predispose the child to chronic diseases later in life.

In real life, we may not see that child’s brain taking shape, but we may be affected later.

Shonkoff was one of several speakers at Thursday’s symposium, titled “Applying the Science of Early Childhood Development to State Policy and Practice: A Case for Action and a Call for Innovation.” Casey Family Programs sponsored the daylong symposium.

Shonkoff is a pediatrician, a professor and director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

“One thing is clear,” he said. “We have serious issues to deal with and fewer resources.”

He suggested smarter allocation of the resources we do have, early interventions based on current science, because it costs less to prevent a problem than to deal with its consequences later.

Shonkoff said science shows: “We need to build strong, stable, protective relationships” if we want children with healthy brains and bodies.

A baby builds 700 synapses a second, he said. Whether that child makes strong circuits and connections or weak ones is affected by its environment.

Neglect by a parent too busy to pay attention or a depressed parent can diminish a baby’s brain development. Babies and young children faced with stress need to know that someone consistently has their back.

Children benefit from the challenge of ordinary stresses when they have a caring adult to help them learn to cope.

It is toxic stress that damages babies’ bodies and minds. Stress that raises levels of stress chemicals for long enough to do lasting damage, stress that is intense, stress that keeps happening again and again. Treating chronic illnesses or providing remedial education is much harder than helping children develop healthy brains and bodies to start with.

Eighty-five percent of brain development happens in the first three years of life. Seventy thousand children start kindergarten in Washington each year, according to Washington’s Department of Health.

How many of those children are ready to learn?

Shonkoff was one of several speakers who said Washington is ahead of most other states in recognizing the need to take brain science into account when formulating public policy. He praised Rep. Ruth Kagi, a 32nd District Democrat, for her leadership on the issue in the Legislature.

Susan Dreyfus, secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services, said she had made a pledge with Dr. Bette Hyde, director of the Department of Early Learning, and Mary Selecky, secretary of the Department of Health, to see early childhood education not as a service or a program, but as “an overall orientation.”

The three department heads work together because the problem of child development goes beyond agency boundaries; it is an education problem and a health problem, a social issue and more all at the same time, and it can’t be addressed piecemeal.

We’ve been gathering information and figuring out what to do with it, taking first steps, like a toddler. Now it is time to retool policies and institutions to run with what we know.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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