SWM-010: Translating Neuroscience into Policy and Practice for At-Risk Children, with Dr. Jack Shonkoff

August 4, 2014 @ 6:46 pm

Social Work Matters podcast coverIn this episode, Mary-lea Cox Awanohara of the Communications Office is joined by doctoral candidate Kathryne (Kat) Brewer for a conversation with Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and a professor in its Schools of Education, Public Health, and Medicine. Dr. Shonkoff also chairs the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, whose mission is to bring credible science to bear on public policy affecting young children.

The night before we recorded the episode, Dr. Shonkoff had delivered the 2014 Lucille N. Austin Lecture, in which he outlined the advances in neuroscience he thinks will have an impact on social work practice with at-risk children. Scientists have discovered, for instance, 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.

In this podcast, we delve more deeply into the aims of Dr. Shonkoff’s most ambitious multidisciplinary collaboration to date: his Frontiers of Innovation initiative, which draws on advances in the biological, behavioral and social sciences in hopes of producing breakthrough outcomes for children facing adversity.



  • Dr. Shonkoff is a pediatrician by training and also worked at a neighborhood health center in the South Bronx. Ultimately, he decided to go into academic medicine and get involved in thinking about how to ensure that science has an impact on social policy.
  • Though he went into medicine, Shonkoff has been influenced throughout his working life by the social work perspective (at one point he served as dean of Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University). He still remembers the time when he was feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of some of the clients’ problems at the health center in the Bronx, and a social worker told him: “You have to believe that people would be worse off if we weren’t doing what we’re doing to help them.”
  • Shonkoff has always valued thinking across disciplines, particularly when it comes to improving outcomes in children’s health. At the same time, though, he appreciates the importance of academic specialists with a “depth of knowledge.” We need both, he says.
  • When he was in pediatrics, Shonkoff spent time working in the disabilities area, seeing it as the last frontier of civil rights. The experience 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 shouldn’t be satisfied with just trying to make the best of the situation. Now that we’ve reached the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty, he finds himself torn. 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 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.
  • Brewer asks Shonkoff for suggestions on how to use research to influence policy. He tells her you have to translate the knowledge into language policy people can understand and then develop relationships with them and work with them to figure out how to accommodate political realities but still make good policy.
  • Brewer asks about Shonkoff’s “new frontiers.” Shonkoff says that the breakthrough in his research came in realizing we have to start focusing on adult skill building as the critical mediator of child skill building—it opened up a whole new world that had not been part of child intervention thinking in the past. How can we give adults the executive skills they will need for mentoring children?
  • Brewer wonders how far you can actually go with adults. Shonkoff reports that his initiative is in the midst of two activities he hopes will converge over the course of this year and provide some answers. First, a group of academics is doing a deep dive to find out what we know about (and how do we measure) the skills developed in prefrontal cortex that come under the category of self-regulation. That group should resurface soon with some of the core foundational capabilities/skills of being a successful adult that can then be translated into non-technical language. Meanwhile, the initiative has convened a group of people with experience running workforce development programs for impoverished adults, who have spent decades trying to figure out how to give people skills they need to get a job and become self-sufficient. They put this group in a room with some early childhood education experts, and “some fascinating chemistry” happened, he says.
  • Brewer asks Shonkoff about the “race” towards greater understanding of what really works among neuroscientists (geneticists) and social scientists (behaviorists and psychosocial interventionists). How will it play out? Shonkoff says we’ve already established that poverty and violence are bad for your health. Instead of more studies of that ilk, we need research that has been designed to provide a deeper understanding of what we can do about the environment—that’s where the frontier is.
  • Brewer wonders if Shonkoff has any advice to young scholars who aspire to work in a multidisciplinary environment. People who do best working across disciplines are flexible, Shonkoff says. For them, the question is not “How do you work across disciplines?” but “How do you not?”