Starting Ahead, Staying Ahead

By Alisson Clark

PHHP’s Dr. Cynthia Johnson (far right) facilitated a workgroup focused on inspiring new initiatives for the next generation. Photos by Aaron Daye/UF Advancement

Giving children a strong start in their first five years doesn’t just help children and their families. The benefits of their success radiate throughout their communities – as do the consequences when they struggle. But the many fields that help shape what happens for young children and their families during these critical years don’t always work together.

Collaborating across disciplines related to early childhood development and learning was one of the challenges posed to over 100 scholars, policy makers, advocates, philanthropists and practitioners who gathered in Orlando for the University of Florida’s Early Childhood National Summit Feb. 8-10. In the first five minutes, UF President Kent Fuchs made it clear that the summit was focused on creating actionable ideas and steps to move the field forward.

“It is crucial that our work on behalf of children is tangible, that it is scalable, and that it reaches the children who need it,” Fuchs said.

The summit, also attended by UF Provost Joseph Glover, professors from six UF colleges and the deans of UF’s College of Education, Levin College of Law, College of Medicine, and College of Public Health and Health Professions, brought together early-childhood leaders from around the country.

Autism researcher Cynthia Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the PHHP department of clinical and health psychology and a member of the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies, served on the summit’s planning committee and as a facilitator for one of the summit’s workgroups.

“The summit brought together key partners from across the country and UF community from varying disciplines, but with a focus on generating solutions to move forward science, policy and practice to improve the early lives of children,” Johnson said.

University of Kansas special-education professor Judith Carta, Ph.D., the interim director of early childhood research at KU’s Juniper Gardens Children’s Project and one of the summit’s expert panelists, lauded UF for recognizing the importance of the issue and taking action.

“We’re using the University of Florida as an example of what universities can do if they just get behind the right issues,” she said.

After a welcome from philanthropist and InterTech Group CEO Anita Zucker, a UF alumna who created the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies at her alma mater, the group heard from keynote speaker Jacqueline Jones, Ph.D., of the Foundation for Child Development. After her speech, Jones, who served as the U.S. Department of Education’s first deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning, stressed the importance of working to retain bipartisan support for early childhood initiatives.

“Where is the common ground, and how do we get to it and hold on to it?” Jones said. “We have to do that, or we’ve failed the children and families we work for.”

Before summit attendees broke out into workgroups, panelists with expertise in psychiatry, pediatrics, psychology, law, education and advocacy shared perspectives to inform the discussions. Their presentations illustrated just how high the stakes are during early childhood, detailing chronic medical conditions with roots in early childhood and factors that influence children’s potential before they’re even born. Then the workgroups got down to the business of the summit: creating recommendations and actions on how to move forward.

By the afternoon, each workgroup had addressed three themes – discovering the keys to opening young minds, influencing the influencers to unlock children’s potential, and inspiring new initiatives for the next generation – drawing on the diverse backgrounds and expertise of participants such as New York University pediatrics professor Benard Dreyer, M.D., immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The summit’s multidisciplinary approach “is absolutely the only way we’ll make progress,” Dreyer said.

The day closed with talks by Glover, Zucker and early childhood advocate David Lawrence Jr., a UF alum, president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation and chair of the Children’s Movement of Florida. The next morning, Anita Zucker Center director Patricia Snyder, Ph.D., UF’s David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Studies, presented each workgroup’s recommendations for feedback and further development.

“The recommendations and action steps will compel us to continue to be a convener of early childhood activities and will help elevate this work to a broader level,” Snyder said.

After final input from the summit attendees and facilitators, the recommendations and action steps will be shared with the policy makers, practitioners and scholars who will shape the future of early childhood.

As Anita Zucker Center co-director Maureen Conroy, Ph.D., put it: “We really want this summit to be the beginning, not the end.”