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Creating a world where all children can succeed

On February 6, the auditorium at MaRS Discovery District filled with community leaders, pediatricians, researchers and engaged citizens, all there to hear some of the world’s leading experts discuss how early childhood experiences get under our skin.

From Cell to Society: Creating a world where all children can succeed brought together powerful thinkers for a CIFAR symposium dedicated to the late Clyde Hertzman, a longstanding CIFAR researcher who made critical contributions to the study of early childhood development.

CIFAR President and Lawson Foundation Fellow Alan Bernstein gave the opening remarks, saying we owe much of our understanding of early childhood to the efforts of researchers in CIFAR’s programs over many years, including Hertzman and Founding President Fraser Mustard.

“Policies such as all-day kindergarten can be traced directly back to Fraser’s campaign and Clyde’s research,” he said.

Over the course of the day, experts from Canada, the United Sates and the United Kingdom participated in panels exploring three levels of concern related to early childhood development: the cellular, the experiential and the societal. CIFAR Co-Director and Weston Fellow Marla Sokolowski (University of Toronto) began theday with an overview of the most pressing challenges facing epigenetics research, drawing examples from current work by CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development program. The program’s focus is to understand the critical periods in brain development, the windows when genes listen most to experience. According to Sokolowski, with a deeper understanding of brain plasticity, researchers will be better able to answer another pertinent question: How can we make a difference so that all children can reach their potential?

Sir Michael Marmot (University College of London) told the audience that while the statistics on childhood morbidity and poverty are sometimes grim, there are communities worldwide that are listening to the evidence, and change is possible. Drawing on his World Health Organization report on the social determinantsof health, Closing the Gap in a Generation, Sir Marmot said cities and nations need to start implementing proven strategies.

“We have the knowledge to close the gap in a generation. We have the means to close the gap in a generation. What we now need is the will to close the gap in a generation,” Marmot said.

The keynote speech by Tom Boyce (Univer­sity of California, San Francisco), co-director of the Child & Brain Development program, was a stirring tribute to Clyde and a galvanizing commentary on one of Clyde’s key messages: “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

“He would have said that it doesn’t have to be that children from disadvantaged communities sustain higher levels of toxic stress, and virtu­ally every form of human malady and premature mortality,” Boyce said.

Boyce explained that there are ways to pre­vent the millions of child deaths each year from disease and to reduce the negative effects of pov­erty, including giving greater rewards to those who care for young children and providing more supports for parents.

Boyce said that by connecting leaders, sci­entists and policymakers to Clyde’s profound insights, we can carry his vision forward and build a better, healthier world for children everywhere.

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