Children’s earliest experiences – in “the first 2,000 days of life” – play a critical role in establishing their developmental trajectories in health, learning, and society.
This was the key message of the international symposium, ‘Investing in Mothers and Children’ (a Connaught Global Challenge International Symposium), held September 27-29, 2012, to mark the official launch of the inter-disciplinary Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development at the University of Toronto.
Speakers invited to share their research at the symposium included:
- Michael Meany (McGill) who spoke about the influence of maternal care on the expression of genes in rats;
- Charles Nelson (Harvard) who spoke about the effects of early deprivation on chromosomal stability and developmental outcomes of children who had been institutionalized in Romania; and
- Robert Pianta (Virginia) who delivered a keynote address on the relationship between classroom experiences and students’ learning and development, and the potential for building teachers’ capacities to provide high-quality classroom experiences to their students.
Dr. Pianta’s talk was of particular interest for those working in the education sector. As noted in the introductory remarks by Dr. Carl Corter, often in the primary and secondary education system, we tend to evaluate students, or even teachers, while our focus should actually be on the quality of classroom experiences. The work by Dr. Pianta and his colleagues focuses on this precisely – examining how emotional support, instructional support, and classroom organization contribute to children’s academic and social outcomes. For example, Dr. Pianta’s research has found that at the Grade 1 level, instructional support seems particularly important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, while emotional support seems particularly important for children with adjustment problems. Dr. Pianta’s team has also been working on developing and testing a scale-able approach to professional development which could improve teachers’ interactions with students – particularly in classrooms with high poverty levels.
The symposium, like the Institute it launched, brought together international researchers and scholars from a range of disciplines -including medicine, genetics, psychology, and education. The establishment of such cross-sector linkages will enrich and deepen the knowledge base on early and lifelong human development. Indeed, I look forward to seeing the growth and evolution of the long-awaited and much-needed inter-disciplinary Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development at the University of Toronto.