Malnutrition can stunt child development, but what about improper and infrequent social interaction? Could isolation inhibit a child’s psychological growth? Dr. Paul Gertler of the University of California at Berkley thinks it can. Dr. Gertler and his colleagues set out to determine if providing appropriate socialization could help disadvantaged children succeed in the academic and employment worlds. Maybe programs such as “Feeding America” would be more effective if social welfare agencies were able to improve the parent-child interaction. Could proper socialization of young children really make that much of a difference? To answer this question, Dr. Gertler conducted a twenty-year longitudinal study of malnourished Jamaican babies. His results are amazing! On a weekly basis from the ages of one to four, researchers provided structured positive social interaction and nutritional support to the experimental group, solely nutritional supplements to one control group, and no support at all to the final control group. At age twenty, the nutrition-plus-social-interaction group were earning 25% more than the controls, less likely to commit a crime, more physically fit, and more successful in school. The success of the experimental group over the controls led Dr. Gertler to conclude that nutrition is not the only factor controlling a disadvantaged child’s well being—frequent and healthy social interaction can help prepare a child for a productive life. Although many programs provide adequate food to struggling families, offering healthy social interactions to toddlers and young preschoolers may be just as important. Is it surprising that giving young children attention and stimulating their language/cognitive development can have a positive impact on their adult lives? The Head Start Program was designed in the 1960’s to provide social and cognitive stimulation to low income children, ages 3-5 years. Today, a similar kind of assistance is available through The Early Head Start program, reflecting the changing tide in child development research. We now know that by helping a child learn language and social skills from a very young age, we improve their chance of achieving success. With what we have learned recently about the negative effects of stress and deprivation on infants and toddlers combined with this new information that social skills training in very young children can dramatically improve their lives, we can begin improve academic and societal performance and maybe even help win the war on poverty. Let’s hope so. Your comments are welcome at www.docsmo.com. Until next time.
Smo Notes: 1. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/344/6187/998 Written collaboratively by Sam Allen and Paul Smolen M.D.