Campus & Community

Children will benefit from new interfaculty initiative

5 min read

As a practicing pediatrician, Judith Palfrey brings a special perspective to her post as director of the Harvard Children’s Initiative (HCI).

Palfrey, the T. Berry Brazelton Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and master of Adams House (her husband, Sean, also a pediatrician, is co-master), still finds time in her busy schedule to treat young patients.

“I’ve never given up doing clinical work, because that grounds you,” she said.

Palfrey was appointed director of HCI this past September. She welcomes the chance to direct this interfaculty initiative as a way to bring the intellectual resources of Harvard to bear on important issues affecting children.

Palfrey has been meeting with HCI’s steering committee as well as with others throughout the University. This period of needs assessment has yielded a list of issues that define what the initiative will be concentrating on in the years ahead.

One area on which Palfrey hopes to target the combined research efforts of various Harvard faculties is that of early childhood, generally defined as the period from birth to age 3. There are a number of ways of approaching this topic, she said.

One is the question of neurological development in early childhood, something that has received renewed attention in recent years, based on discoveries that children of this age make more sophisticated judgments about the world and are more active as learners than was previously believed.

Another approach is to find ways of giving support to families with young children, particularly young single mothers who may be experiencing acute stress.

“There are a number of developments that make early childhood extremely important to think about,” Palfrey said.

A second area on which Palfrey plans to concentrate is violence and children.

“What is it that is going on in society in general – both in U.S. society and international society – that is sparking violence by children? And why is it that there is so much violence against children? This is certainly a problem that is open to a tremendous range of input,” she said.

Palfrey mentioned the Divinity School, the Kennedy School, the Law School, School of Public Health, and the Graduate School of Education, as well as the Psychology and Sociology departments as areas of Harvard that might make a valuable contribution to these problems.

The question of mental health in children is a third area on which Palfrey plans to direct HCI’s efforts.

In this case, two separate requests by outside agencies should help to stimulate collaborative work on this topic. The Harvard Children’s Initiative has been approached by the City of Cambridge and the World Health Organization to develop curricula for training mental health professionals in children’s issues. Palfrey feels that such requests are very much in keeping with the original purpose of the Interfaculty Initiatives.

“If we go back to the question, how can we bring the intellectual capital of Harvard to bear on problems in our society – I think it’s perfectly wonderful that these two organizations have asked us for help,” Palfrey said.

She has since put together a working group to respond to these requests and is excited about the possibility of Harvard’s contributing to the solution of this worldwide problem.

“The reason this is so compelling is that if you look at statistics around mental health problems – depression, suicide, homicide – all these things are on the upswing, and unfortunately they affect younger and younger children. We’re very much concerned about why that is, and since we don’t have adequate resources to respond to this growing problem, we need to be working on the preventive end.”

Palfrey said that HCI will also continue to work on an issue that has occupied it in the past: literacy. She sees literacy as the key to many positive developments in the lives of children.

“It may sound simple to say that if people could only read then maybe they wouldn’t kill each other, but the fact of the matter is that success in school really builds self-confidence, and people who are competent and self-confident are much less likely to be depressed, much less likely to be violent, much less likely to use their time badly and get involved with smoking and drugs and guns.”

But as with all preventive programs, there are inherent problems with convincing decision-makers to allocate needed funds. Palfrey hopes that the collaborative nature of HCI will help to overcome this obstacle.

“If you work on the front end in terms of building a community that supports and sustains children, you’re very much more likely to have a society in which you don’t have people hanging themselves and shooting each other and getting pregnant and so forth. For me personally, that seems pretty self-evident, but because those two things are separated by time, it’s often hard to get monies expended in one sector to prevent something in another sector. That’s the reason why an effort involving people from the Medical School, the School of Public Health, the Kennedy School, the Business School, etc., may be helpful in bridging that causal gap and helping to bring about a greater awareness of the problem.”