The Brain Architects Podcast: Understanding Racism’s Impact on Child Development – Working Toward Fairness of Place in the United States


In December 2023, we continued our Place Matters webinar series with our second installment: “Understanding Racism’s Impact on Child Development: Working Towards Fairness of Place in the United States.” During the webinar, Stephanie Curenton, PhD, Nathaniel Harnett, PhD, Mavis Sanders, PhD, and Natalie Slopen, ScD, discussed their latest research, exploring how racism gets “under the skin” to impact children’s development and how it contributes to unequal access to opportunity in the places where children live, grow, play, and learn. Together, they explored ways to dismantle systemic barriers and work toward solutions that promote healthy child development. The webinar discussion has been adapted for this episode of the Brain Architects podcast. 

Additional Resources



Cameron Seymour-Hawkins: Welcome to The Brain Architects, a podcast from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. I’m Cameron Seymour-Hawkins, the Center’s Communications Coordinator.Our Center believes that advances in the science of child development provide a powerful source of new ideas that can improve outcomes for children and their caregivers. By sharing the latest science from the field, we hope to help you make that science actionable and apply it in your work in ways that can increase your impact.

In December, we continued our Place Matters webinar series with our second installment: “Understanding Racism’s Impact on Child Development: Working Towards Fairness of Place in the United States.” During the webinar, Doctors Stephanie Curenton, Nathaniel Harnett, Mavis Sanders, and Natalie Slopen, discussed their latest research, exploring how racism gets “under the skin” to impact children’s development and how it contributes to unequal access to opportunity in the places where children live, grow, play, and learn. Together, they explored ways to dismantle systemic barriers and work toward solutions that promote healthy child development. We’re excited to share this conversation on today’s episode of the Brain Architects podcast.

Now, without further ado, here’s Tassy Warren, the Center’s Deputy Director and Chief Strategy Officer, who will set the stage for our conversation.

Tassy Warren: Hello. Welcome to today’s webinar. Understanding Racism’s Impact on Child Development. Working towards fairness of place in the United States. We’re so excited to bring you into this conversation. Whether you’re joining us for the first time or are a regular to the Center on the Developing Child, thank you for being here today. This webinar is part of our Place Matters Webinar series. The series is designed to expand upon our Center’s recent work on how influences from our environments, particularly the built in natural environments, play a role in shaping early childhood development beginning before birth. Throughout this series, we’re highlighting scientific and community expertise and offering strategies to work towards fairness of place and to create the conditions that will allow all children to thrive. Today’s conversation will explore the intersection between policy, systemic inequalities, racial disparities, and children’s healthy development. We hope that you’ll gain insights that are helpful to you in the work you do in support of children and families. And thank you to everyone who submitted questions when registering for this event. We received hundreds of submitted questions, so we’ll be asking some of those questions in the second half of the conversation. Of course, we will not have time to address all the questions that are submitted or we would be here for days. But we were really intrigued going through all of the questions that were submitted. And we appreciate the thought-provoking ideas that you all brought to mind for us. So we will be thinking about how those questions can inform future conversations.

So I am really excited in just a second to hand it over to Dr. Stephanie Curenton, who we are incredibly lucky to have leading this conversation for us today. Dr. Curenton is a professor in the Education Leadership and Policy Studies department at Boston University. Wheelock College of Education and Human Development and is the Director of the Center on the Ecology of Early Development, or CEED.

CEED’S research and initiatives serve to inform policies that promote equity and justice for racially and ethnically minoritized children in the context of education, health and community. She is joined today by an outstanding panel of researchers Dr. Nathaniel Harnett, Dr. Mavis Sanders, and Dr. Natalie Slopen. Dr. Harnett is Director of the Neurobiology of Affective and Traumatic Experiences Laboratory at McLean Hospital and an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Harnett’s research is focused on understanding the neurobiological mechanisms that mediate susceptibility to trauma and stress related disorders. Dr. Sanders is a Senior Research Scholar of Black Children and Families at Child Trends, where she leads in applied research agenda that advances racial equity and social justice. Before joining Child Trends in 2021, Dr. Sanders served as a professor of education and affiliate professor in the doctoral program in Language, Literacy and Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Dr. Slopen is an Assistant Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Dr. Slopen is a social epidemiologist, and her research focuses on social and contextual factors that shape childhood development and inequities in health. Now, I’ll let Dr. Curenton share more about herself and kick off our conversation.

Stephanie Curenton: Hello, everyone. I am honored to be here to moderate this conversation and to represent CEED as well as Boston University. As Tassy was saying, our work at CEED specifically focuses on understanding how racism impacts Black children’s growth and development and ways in which families use their cultural assets and social capital to protect themselves from the harm of racism.

And we know that this conversation we’re having today is critically important because racism operates on multiple levels and it impacts young children throughout all levels of their biology, their social development and other ecological systems. And in the prenatal phase and the first years of life, they are the most sensitive developmental period. So it’s really critical to understand how racism exerts its impact on the health and growth of prenatal children and infants and toddlers.

As a scholar myself, I’ve been investigating and doing work on the topic of racism in young children’s learning for decades. By the fall of 2024, CEED, along with our partners at Equity Research Action Coalition, will be publishing a special issue for Early Childhood Research Quarterly on this topic, featuring researchers from a variety of disciplines and highlighting the work of several junior scholars.

So the scientific evidence is clear, and it’s growing that racism imposes unique and substantial stressors on the daily lives of families and caregivers. And understanding how these stressors affect child health and development provides a compelling framework for understanding and protecting young children. Such frameworks are the Rise Three Model, for which I’m a coauthor with Dr. Iheoma Iruka.

It presents new ideas about how communities, policies, programs and funding streams might confront and dismantle inequalities and build a stronger future for all of us. But we’re here today because there is so much opportunity ahead of us at the community level, at the policy level, and in all the work that brings each of us to this conversation today, as the Center on the Developing Child wrote in Their Place Matters paper that was published earlier this year.

It says just as dimensions of the built and natural environment have been designed over time, they can be redesigned to support healthy development. So throughout our discussion today, we will share ways to redesign, rethink and advance forward in pursuit of creating environments that are anti-racist and can support all children’s healthy development. And with that, I’m so excited to be moderating this conversation with Nate and Natalie and Mavis.

And I’m going to start the conversation with Nate. So, Nate, can you share what you’ve observed in your recent research in early childhood emotional health? Specifically, how have you observed the effects of racism on children’s brain development and how. And how were you able to expose a direct relationship to structural racism in your findings?

Nathaniel Harnett: Yes. Thank you so much, Dr. Curenton. And thank you very much for having me. Just to set the stage for answering that question, you know, my lab is really interested in understanding how we identify and prevent the development of things like trauma and stress related disorders. And we know that the stress that people experience during childhood really plays a role in the development of those disorders.

And we know that there are these really strong racial disparities between the amount of stress that people are exposed to where Black and other racially, ethically marginalized individuals are exposed to a disproportionate amount of stress. And so what we’ve been trying to do is to understand how the places in which children are growing up is related to the developments in brain structure and function and how that might play a role in later development of PTSD.

And so one of the more recent things that we’ve done is we looked at data from this large scale longitudinal study of child development called the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study. This is a study in about 10 to 12000 kids that started when they were about 9 to 10 years old. We were looking at the volume of gray matter of different brain regions that we know are really important for emotion, learning and memory.

These include things like the prefrontal cortex, really important for attention and top down regulation of people’s emotional responses. And then regions like the amygdala and hippocampus, which are really important for expressing that emotional response, that fear response to something stressful. And what we found was that if you look at the brain volume of white children compared to Black children, you see that Black talent show, this decrements in gray matter volume of these different brain regions.

But what’s really important is if you look at the environments that they’re growing up in, if you look at the amount of income that Black children have or their parents have, if you look at this thing called the area deprivation index, it’s way of looking at the amount of resources available in these different environments. If you look at the amount of conflict that’s happening in the homes, there really strong racial disparities in all these different areas where Black children are really living in these areas that have much more deprivation, There’s much more conflict in the homes, there’s much lower income across those in all of those things are related to gray matter volume in the study. And so once we go through to address your question of how do we actually expose this direct link, once we go through, we try to normalize these mathematically, when we try to account for all of those, you really don’t see strong racial differences in gray matter volume anymore. This is really important because we also look to see how are the volumes of these regions tied to PTSD symptoms even at nine and ten years old.

And so you wouldn’t expect large symptoms of PTSD. You wouldn’t expect many people to reach the level of the disorder. And you don’t see that. But you really still see even at nine and ten differences in the severity of PTSD symptoms, differences in the levels of trauma, exposure at nine, ten years old between white and Black individuals. And once you sort of normalize when you sort of equalize the environment, the places that they’re growing up in, you really see these sort of normalizations of brain volume, too.

And so we’re really thinking about how do we address this question that the webinar is about this sort of aspect of place and how that’s really toward kids are growing up so that we can help to alleviate some of these brain differences that we see that are going to have a role in how these individuals develop into the future.

Stephanie Curenton: So this is just absolutely fascinating. I was taking copious notes here, and I can’t wait until we get to the question and answer session to talk more. But at this point, though, I want to give Natalie a chance to talk about some of her recent work that is centered on racial disparities in the physical and mental health of young children.

So, Natalie, can you tell us about your research and how you’re finding links to inequitable experiences and opportunities, particularly as it relates to inequalities in the places where caregivers are raising their young children?

Natalie Slopen: Yes. Thank you so much for having me here and for the opportunity to share the work that I’m doing along with my students. So my research is focused on understanding how inequitable experiences of opportunity for healthy development that are shaped by our systems and structures affect healthy development and contribute to inequities that we see across socioeconomic position as well as across racial and ethnic groups with marginalized, racial and ethnic children from marginalized groups, often displaying worse outcomes early in the life course.

And we know that these differences emerge over time. So, you know, health is rooted in childhood. And so it’s really important to understand the systems and structures that are in place very early on affecting children in their families so that we can identify where and how we can intervene. And so I have been working on research across a variety of topics, thinking about what are different systems and structures that children interact with that are relevant to their health in the earliest years of life.

And one of the areas very relevant to today’s topic is housing. And one of the areas that I’m interested in is also in neighborhoods. And so I thought I could give an example of a study that I published this past year related to neighborhoods that connects to the topic for today. So this was a study that we published in Pediatrics, and we drew on a large national data source called the Mortality Disparities in American Communities.

And what we did is we connected information about over a million children in the United States coming from the American community surveys, linking it to information about the neighborhoods that they were living in. So here we were using a neighborhood measure called the Child Opportunity Index. And then we followed the children were followed with death record data for 11 years.

And so what our study found was that residing in neighborhoods with lower opportunity based on this measure of the Child Opportunity Index was associated with increased risk for mortality for children as well as for their parents. And so we felt as though it was important to document the intergenerational consequences of neighborhood settings and the importance of implementing place based policies to reduce the inequities that children experience that will have consequences as time goes on.

And so that particular study that I’m talking about was focused on outcome of mortality. But there’s a huge literature documenting the role that inequitable neighborhood environments, how across many dimensions of social, emotional, behavioral development in children and then health outcomes that we see as individuals age over over the life course. So that’s an interesting area of work. And one of the topics that I’m very interested in is how we best measure neighborhood context for health.

So there’s a lot of leading, you know, a lot of popular measures of neighborhood environment. And I think there’s a lot of open questions about which is going to be most useful for us and in which context. So some measures may be best when we’re thinking about how to decide where to implement certain programs or policies, whereas other may be useful, you know, for research purposes.

And so I think there’s a lot of open questions that we can answer using science about the best ways to conceptualize what the characteristics of neighborhoods matter most for children. And then finally, another topic that I’m interested in has to do with heterogeneity or variation in the way children respond and to their environments, thinking that that can help us to understand how to develop interventions that can close gaps in outcomes to lead to more equitable health and development for all children.

Stephanie Curenton: Well, again, just some really compelling research and just really, really, really interesting and compelling, somewhat a little sad too. So I will turn it over to Mavis. And Mavis, you and your team of researchers recently developed an interactive tool that allows users to such as users, such as policymakers, practitioners or researchers, to browse a decade of literature on the effects of protective community resources, and with the aim to explore how these resources can mitigate the impacts of risks faced by children and youth, including racism, as one of those risks.

So during your review of this extensive body of work, can you share more about some of your key discoveries?

Mavis Sanders: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Stephanie. Thank you for the invitation to this conversation. Just to provide a bit of context. My coauthors and I, including Jennifer Winston, Shana Rochester and Dominique Martinez, that I definitely want to give a shout out. We have been engaged in a process since I arrived at Child Friends to develop a research agenda which we sort of collectively throughout the organization decided would acknowledge the diversity in the Black community be strengths-based, be systems-focused and solutions-based as well. And we went through a three step process, and I believe that there will be a brief in the chat box to identify what went through this three step process to identify the research priorities. So you can imagine it was a large option, a large number of options that we could have pursued.

And so what we decided through this three step process is to focus on Black family, cultural assets and community protected resources. My colleague, Chrishana Lloyd, will be focused on Black family cultural assets and I am focused on protective community resources as part of that process. We are engaged in a systematic review of protective community resources and how they relate to child and youth development.

We had 3000 studies. Initially we were able to reduce those to about 300, and so of studies that went before a review, and then we reduced further to 172 settings. So your bibliographic tool that you reference includes information for those 172 studies that users can filter based on either the risk of participants or the age of the participants, or the type the type of protected community resource people are interested in.

And so for this discussion, because we’re talking a lot about mental well-being and cognitive development and so forth, when we look at those outcomes and this also feel terrible about things like community cohesion and support. Rise to the top is being consistently significant across this very diverse body of literature. So I want to put that out there. This is really hard to come to, drawn any absolutes.But there is a preponderance of evidence that suggests that community role models and mentors positive peer support, school connectedness and engagement in community based activities as well as neighborhood amenities, all contribute to the positive mental health of young people and that they can mitigate some of the risk. And I think that’s what Natalie was talking about. That’s in communities and what that suggests to me is that relationships matter, but also the spaces for people to gather and build those kinds of relationships that were so important to young people’s development. So I’d be happy to talk about that further as this conversation unfolds.

Stephanie Curenton: Yes. I’m going to ask you another question, Mavis, about your work. Your team released a brief in November that was called Black Children and Youth can Benefit from focused research on protective community Resources. And in that brief, you stated several neighborhood amenities and services that were associated with that health and safety. Can you name some more of those specifically?

Mavis Sanders: Yeah, absolutely. When we and Natalie talked about this as well, the constraints that we have as researchers by the measures that we have. Right. But we are improving in those areas. Neighborhood amenities specifically, which is one of the areas that we found to have a significant and positive relationship and association with Black children’s flourishing and development. One of those, you can think of those amenities as parks, recreation centers, libraries, sidewalks. So people who are familiar with the National Survey of Children’s Health are familiar with that sort of neighborhood amenities measure that includes those. There are also some studies that are really interesting around walkability of a city. So how is the city sitting out to promote walking as a mode of transportation? So you look at, you know, public transit location as how buildings are laid out, the lighting that is available. All of those things. And so we also published one brief where we looked at flourishing and flourishing was just looking at individuals’ ability to stick to a particular topic or a particular task and to have their ability to control their emotions and those kinds of things. And we found that young people who had access to all four of those neighborhood amenities, sidewalks, green spaces and parks, libraries and rec center were more likely to flourish or to have those sort of mental health indicators of flourishing than children who did not have access to those amenities. We also found out another study suggested that young men who work in cities with walkability so young Black, male, adolescent were less likely to report being involved in physical violence of any sort when they lived in cities or neighborhoods with higher walkability skills. So those are two of the sort of space-based or, you know, built environment elements that would seem to make a difference in the outcomes that we’re interested in for Black children.

Stephanie Curenton: Yeah. Again, this is just so the research that all of you are talking about is just really, really emphasizing the importance of place and the importance of relationships within the context of spaces and places. So it’s just fascinating to me. I’m going to circle back to Natalie now and ask you, Natalie, about the Child Opportunity Index and how you use that in your work. So specifically, can you share with us more about this tool and how that tool in particular might help us better understand health disparities in places where children live and grow?

Natalie Slopen: Okay, so the Child Opportunity Index is a measurement tool that was developed by Dolores Acevedo-Garcia and her colleagues, notably Clements, know IQ is a major contributor there as well. They’re based at Brandeis University, and they developed this measure as a way to think about the opportunities that are available to children in various communities across the United States. So it’s an example of a police station measure that’s aiming to evaluate or quantify resources and opportunities, specifically as related to children’s well-being and future prospects. So there are other place based composite measures of advantages or disadvantage that exists. And yet we mentioned the area deprivation index as an example. There’s the social vulnerability index. There’s really a host, there’s an environmental justice index.

But this is the only one that I’m aware of that I’ve seen in the literature that’s really tailored and designed to think about those aspects of the environment that matter for child development specifically. So it’s thinking about quality of education and health care, neighborhood characteristics of the built environment such as those that Mavis had just mentioned, like walkability and safety and other essential elements of neighborhoods and communities.

And so this measure is used by many different types of individuals and organizations. It’s very well designed to highlight disparities in access to opportunities across different demographic groups and across geographic areas. So this can help people to think about, you know, which contexts really require certain types of investments or interventions and where we may see the greatest impacts of investments for improving outcomes among them, perhaps underserved communities. And so the data is, you know, we have this data nationally across the United States, and it’s been being used by researchers as well as a lot of different public health departments at this time.

Stephanie Curenton: Great, great. So happy to learn, too, that that was built here in Massachusetts. That’s very great. I’m going to switch to talking about the implications for you all’s work and I’m going to open it up to each of you. So I know that it’s hard for researchers to come up with policy recommendations or community strategies specifically because we are scientists and researchers by training. But can you think about your research and how it informs strategies to support child development at either that community level or that larger systems level? And I’m going to circle back to Nate and let him start.

Nathaniel Harnett: You chose the one that it’s hard to answer. So I think that, you know, for us in the brain imaging field, it’s sometimes hard to think about how does showing picture pictures of the brain to people really help with this type of thing and how do we address policy? But I think that one of the benefits of the work that we do is that we really can show these effects very strongly. It’s one thing when you ask people, you know, do you think that discrimination has an impact on well-being? And you can get in this argument of, oh, is it perceived as the best thing? And we can actually look at the brain. We can actually look at what happens when you keep people in these impoverished environments. I think that’s really powerful.

We’ve done a bit in terms of reaching out, both to talking with individuals at the Center For and Behavior with Transition and thinking about how do we actually talk to people in positions of power, people who are making laws, people are making policy and actually showing them the data to just say, look, this is a real thing. We can really see it in the people that we’re looking at.

It’s not something you can really get away from, you know, And I think that there are other things that we thought about in terms of what are the actual policies that we can do. And I think, you know, one thing that I’ve said in the past is like, well, we know that even though there’s heterogeneity, the results, even things like cash transfers are associated with changes in brain, they vary reliably in some ways associated with changes in mental health and behavior.

And I think that part of the reason you see these heterogeneity is in some of the findings is for the exact reason that we’re talking about here. Right. And that the place that people are growing up and the actual structures themselves also need to change to help to facilitate this bettering of child development and ultimately sort of healthy adult functioning in the future.

Stephanie Curenton: What about Natalie or Mavis? Do you want to follow up on that?

Mavis Sanders: Sure, I’ll jump in. I think it really speaks to the need for researchers not to conduct their research in silos, to think about these research policy practice kinds of partnerships and being intentional about building those. Also, I’ve I feel lucky to be a part of an applied research center where we really are thinking about solutions, but also working in tandem to evaluate interventions like Nate just mentioned, to be able to show effects both short term as well as long term.

And I think it also speaks to the need for funding to support that kind of work and not only those short term evaluations, but those long term evaluations. And so really helping folks be present to seeing over a period of time and also to support the establishment of databases that allow this research. All of that is so important.

And we see how this research can also translate into positive practice. I love the sort of rebuild effort that’s going on in Philadelphia. We can talk a lot about that. But it is the sort of outgoing mayor, and I guess they’re part of their legacy to rebuild the libraries and the parks and the rec centers that are in Philadelphia.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested, has been very community center, where the community has a say in the type of amenities that are provided to communities and the importance of those spaces not just for what we think about, but for afterschool programing, for family reunions, for all of these things that we know sort of benefit both children and families.

And I believe that there’s a video clip that will be there to talk about rebuild to a certain extent. But these are the kinds of large scale initiatives, policy initiatives that can take place when policymakers and practitioners and advocates, as well as researchers are in conversation to say this matters, this type of investment is absolutely necessary to address the disinvestment that has occurred in Black communities and other underserved communities.

And I think sometimes when we question the importance of our voices, but I think it absolutely is necessary in tandem with advocates and practitioners.

Stephanie Curenton: And I think that’s very, very well said. Did you have anything you wanted to add to that question? Natalie?

Natalie Slopen: No, please feel free to move on. I think that was really comprehensive and I appreciate Mavis bringing in this notion of collaboration with with Cost Communities, because that’s really what we need to be doing to have tailored and effective approaches. And I think also being like recognizing that evaluation for some of the types of programs that we’re talking about is really hard and may may not be able to follow a randomized trial. But we need to to think broadly and creatively about how to build the evidence about what works.

Stephanie Curenton: So I’m going to start this next question with you, Natalie. And this question is about mindset shifts. So we’ve been talking about changes to spaces in the built environment, but can you talk to us and share your ideas about what mindset shifts or adjustments we really need to consider in the early childhood field and which mindset shifts would be informed by your research?

Natalie Slopen: That’s a hard question. So I think that, you know, there’s been so much change and progress in the field of early childhood over the past several decades, and I think that there is now tremendous appreciation and focus on inequities, which is wonderful and a lot of attention to how we can take an anti-racist approach to understanding and addressing inequities in a way that we haven’t seen in the past. And that’s thanks to a lot of people’s work across a lot of different disciplines. I think we see changes in psychology and social work and public health, but it’s really coming from a lot of people focused on early child development, which is great. I think we have a long way to go to understand how to situate everything that we understand about an eco bio developmental model of child development within our thinking about upstream causes. And so while personal relationships matter, personal relationships are situated in an ecosystem and we we want to take a structural approach so that we can be as effective for as many people as possible. So I think that might be somewhat of a mindset shift. It’s not saying that relationships don’t matter because of course they do. But if we can shift our mind to think about what can we do at the higher upstream policy level to allow for the types of relationships we typically study, you know, are helpful to children to play themselves out.

So what can we do upstream to create opportunities in for children to have the healthiest context possible would be the mindset shift that that comes to my mind is continuing to push to think about upstream determinants.

Stephanie Curenton: Yeah, so I love what you just added here. You just articulated it that this is what we’re talking about now. This research is really about space and place. It’s upstream, right? It’s it’s a really good example of how to think about the work that’s important and upstream. So it’s fascinating. I’m just learning so much here with you all today.

I know that at this point we have a good amount of time for some questions from the community and we have some here that Tassy and her team have already curated. And I’m going to start with one and I’ll just open the floor. And whoever is interested can just respond to it. So one question is, what does the research show us about the different types of impacts that racism has in early childhood education and poverty, what they have in early childhood development? What similarities do we see and what differences do we see about the different how the different types of racism affect young children? And I’m assuming by types of racism, they’re talking about structural, interpersonal, internalized, etc..

Mavis Sanders: I’ll jump in and say from our systematic review of the literature on protective community resources, what we found was that even though we looked at a decade of research, right, so from 2012 until 2022, so research that was published within that sort of last decade went nowhere in 2023, ended in 2020. And I think one thing we identified some gaps in is in that report that you referenced earlier, Stephanie, that we need more in group for group specific types of studies because right now so much of the research and I understand researchers who are trying to be published in the top journals of their particular field, they actually will rely on a lot of survey data or data that includes diverse population of participants so that they can sort of draw and generalize the findings. Right. But when we do that, we give up something, right? So there’s no perfect study. You know, there are pros and cons to all kinds of approaches, and that’s reason we need a mix of studies, because at this particular point, we don’t have a lot of specific studies, and it’s hard for us to sort of talk about what this means, like the impact of racism, for example, the impact of anti-Black racism on young people, how that differs across, you know, region of the country, across socioeconomic status. There are so many very specific questions that we don’t know the answer to because we haven’t had that type of research. And then by the same token, we can say what supports, you know, youth versus young children’s development. And when we start talking about youth, we look at sexual and gender identity and how that has different effects and affects the experiences of young people differently.

All of these become questions that show that even though there is an abundance of research, that we have been constrained by measures a lot of it we’re using quantitative survey designs that can limit the kinds of questions that we can ask and the measures that we’ve had in the past. I mean, just thinking about the different types of racism, that’s a fairly current conversation. And so people are just beginning. So I wish that we could say more. But I think one thing that we can say is in this literature, there are large gaps and so we need to embrace the importance of those very group specific questions and encourage researchers to go ahead and do it. And I don’t think that there’s been the same level of permission to do those kinds of studies in the past. But we know their importance and we need to give each other and ourselves and various researchers who are coming into the pipeline permission to conduct those kinds of research.

Stephanie Curenton: Yeah. So I echo and support everything you’re saying and just this idea of how we need to expand and diversify our research and just in terms of measures, in terms of samples, in terms of quality data versus quantitative, I think that that is a really good, thoughtful and big agenda for how we move forward and in a way that can answer these questions.

So it’s great. I’m going to ask this question from an audience member, which I think is really interesting, is which one point about racism’s impact on early child development? Do you do you wish that we as researchers or the public policy makers practitioners that we understood more? So let’s think about one point.

Natalie Slopen:  The one point that comes to my mind is I think that there is could be often a misconception that the consequences of experience. Well, first of all, I think people hear the word racism, and very often the default thought is interpersonal experiences of racism and not thinking across different levels. So, number one, but I think that there’s a conventional thought that the damage would be psychological or emotional without thinking about the broader span of consequences. There are implications of the range of types of racist experiences that people have interpersonally and within their day to day experiences in systems and in structural environments that affect cognitive development and social development and how the physical health is impacted. As Nate talked about, sleep, the whole range of developmental outcomes that we study are beginning to be studied in relation to a variety of forms of racism and we shouldn’t underestimate that the pervasive impacts that it can have.

Mavis Sanders: That is a hard question because we know how pervasive the effects have been, right? So I would cheat and I would, you know, try to at least two come to mind, top of mind. And one is the relationship between racism and economic violence. Or when I talk about economic violence, again, drawing from the domestic violence definitions of obstructions to economic mobility and opportunity, because in that way we see the interface between racism and poverty and economic disinvestment in communities and all that means for children’s well-being, their health and the environment. So that’s one thing. But I think also importantly, how racism and this pervasiveness of American society leading to representation in education, the effect that that has had on one’s identity development and young children’s identity development, what we see that in terms of youth and what we’re seeing in terms of research, where young Black and young adults, Black youths feel less tied to Black identity than previous generations.

And what does that mean for young Black children as they develop in the society that is still characterized by anti-Black racism? When young Black children do not have a sort of positive racial identity? And how do they then begin to understand the system that they’re in and how do they navigate the this? So the effects of racism not only on racial identity, no children and their whole identity, their personhood, but also is the association with economic deprivation and violence in the United States. So those would be two things.

Nathaniel Harnett: Yeah. So I’m also going to cheat in answering this question because I think that the question itself really dovetails nicely with both Dr. Slopen’s and Dr. Sanders answers to what is the mindset shift We’re going to we need to have this sort of field, and especially for those of us in neuroscience, I think it’s really important to recognize that we really haven’t done that much in terms of trying to understand this sort of intersection of racialization, socioeconomic deprivation and violence that children are exposed to.

We spent a lot of time thinking about how environmental deprivation or exposure to different threats the environment might affect children in general. We’ve done two decades of work looking at all of this, but in terms of acknowledging or accepting that the experiences that say, Black or white children might have are different as a result of this sort of socio historical or cultural pressures that’s been placed on the environments that people now grow up in.

There’s been very limited to do with that. And also going back to Dr. Sanders point, and it’s something that our work is trying to move to, We haven’t done a good job of it. We’ve focused a lot on group differences and potential contributors to that, but we haven’t explored or begun to scratch the surface of what’s happening within groups. What might be different for individuals who are still exposed to these high levels of racism that come from less socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. What’s the sort of impact on the brain? And again, we know again, it’s been almost 100 years, maybe more, figuring out these regions are really important for emotion, really important for different psychiatric disorders. And if we really want to have a full understanding of what the consequences of stress are, what the consequences of racism are, and what the sort of brain basis for disorders are, so we can make these generalizable, actionable treatments for the entire system in the United States. We really need to figure out what’s happening there, especially in child and how this sort of intersection between racialization and these threat and deprivation, other aspects of thinking about childhood development are intersecting to achieve those goals.

Stephanie Curenton: So I have a quick follow up question for Mavis. When you were talking, did you say that children nowadays have a less of a attachment to their Black identity than in prior years decades? Can you talk more about that?

Mavis Sanders: I have to send you the poll. And so I don’t want to share the source, but I’m almost sure what the source is about. But as I said, it’s documented now and so I will soon that link. But yes, they were just looking at across generations in terms of identification with one sort of racial identity. And we know that young people, I think younger than 30, have a different level attach of attachment than previous generations.

And I will make sure that I send that study so that it can be added as a resource for participants moving forward.

Stephanie Curenton: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Compelling. I see a lot of little shocked emojis floating up the, you know, with that. So yes, please. Sure. That we all get that. I have another question that I’m going to go to here. Okay. And I again, I’ll throw this out to anyone. How do you think we can ensure that future research contributes to this dismantling of racial inequalities and of building those conditions for a success? How do you think future research what do you think future research needs to do? And for everyone, as a field, not just you.

Mavis Sanders: I would say that Nate has, you know, sort of laid it out and that Natalie has also laid it out in terms of, you know, group specific studies, in terms of new questions and the development of new measures, the actual full use of the existing measures that are out there around economic opportunity and the opportunity index scale that Natalie was talking about using a variety of approaches, engaging with community to see about community questions. What is important in those communities. We talk about research, policy, practice partnerships and research. So I think all of those, you know, those are at least four areas in terms of the approach to who has a say in the types of questions that we’re asking and answering. You know, what type of supports and funding are available for us to do these specific kinds of studies and vehicles for publication. And then for those who are in higher ed and academia, whether or not institutions of higher education are also valuing these that our promotion and tenure ratings are also valuing them. And so that as people do this type of research, they’re not fearful that they will be able to advance in their chosen field in academia. It really means that we have to start bringing all of these insights into the conversations because we know this research is important, that there are so many institutions and systems that are in place that may limit people’s opportunity to engage with this.

Stephanie Curenton: What I really love about you all as panelists is that you are all coming from different perspectives, right? So it’s sort of really interdisciplinary and I think that’s a strength. When I talked about the ECRQ. special issue, also, it’s interdisciplinary. And I’m wondering when we think about research for the future, I’m wondering if there could be some way in which instead of approaching these questions as individual scientists, can we approach things as a collaborative right so that we can go deeper?

And I just think that that is such a good, proactive way to allow the science to advance. And I’m hoping that people can hear funders, federal agencies, I’m hoping that they can hear this as well, and really see the power of what we can learn when we have an interdisciplinary group working on issues. We have about 5 minutes. I’m going to give you all each some time to do a take away message. And so the takeaway message is please share a positive outcome or a development in your work related to communities, policies and research that we can take with us. So an idea that we can leave with us that will help us sort of fill and empower to learn and grow, continue this work. So what’s a positive you want to leave with us?

Mavis Sanders: Well, one positive that I have is that it seems to be a convergence that I’ve seen around advocacy groups, policy groups, researchers that understand the importance of disentangling the effects or highlighting the effects of systemic the way systems organization affect outcomes and not just reporting outcomes, but really trying to help people understand the context in which those outcomes are produced. And so that’s moving us forward in the conversation. So we’re not reporting just, oh, there’s a gap in academic achievement between Black children and white children, and we’re talking about the institutional aspects of of underfunding education and relying on text, you know, property, poverty, tax based or whatever. And they have long term effects of economic inequity, of educational and economic inequities to lead to these outcomes. So the importance of contextualizing these findings so that we take our research gains for the systems that produce them rather than the individual, I think is really important. And it seems as though I feel as though there’s much more support for that and and almost an expectation of that. And so we can hold on to that and push that that I think that that helps us to to change or create those kinds of environments that all children deserve and to thrive.

Stephanie Curenton:  I love that. What about Natalie and Nate? What are what is your takeaway or positive takeaway you want to leave us with?

Natalie Slopen: Well, I feel very encouraged about the attention that we see across the different disciplines. Thinking about early childhood to context, I think there has been this shift that we’ve all observed over the past decade that has made it almost an expectation to be thinking about across topics and I think that our data sources are catching up and we have more and more opportunities, let’s say, where researchers who rely on large federally funded cohort studies, for example, they are collecting more information that allows us to study both risk factors, but also protect of factors, which is an incredibly important future direction as well. And so I think that we have increasing opportunities to take a very comprehensive look at social environments that shape child development, both positive and negative. And also to take a multi-level perspective, which we know is going to be really important for figuring out upstream strategies for intervention.

Stephanie Curenton: Yeah, okay, great, great. What about you, Nate?

Nathaniel Harnett: I think you are. Both of these are great. I wish I could just answer that, but I’ll try to come up with something unique very quickly. You know, I think for me, I’m not unaware of the sort of story that neuroscience has played and the way in which people will use biology to justify a lot of, let’s say, racist behavior. And the way that sort of structuralism, the institutions that we have, it’s been very, very encouraging to see more people pay attention to this. And you know, really get the data to show that it’s not this sort of ingrained brain thing. It’s the systems that we develop as the structures that are in place that are contributing to altered development and playing a role. That is true. And I think this sort of increased recognition, having the data to really emphasize this is just been really positive for me. Yeah.

Stephanie Curenton: I tell you, I am so filled up with knowledge and encouraged as a scientist by, this conversation with you all, I really feel as though we need more conversations like this. We just scratched the surface here and I it’s been so lovely meeting you all. And I want to say that I hope we can continue this conversation in meaningful ways.

And I want to thank you for being part of this panel and bringing your knowledge here in this space. And I thank you on behalf of Harvard and the Center on the Developing Child. I thank you on behalf of Boston University and and CEED. And I look forward to continuing these conversations with you all.

Cameron Seymour-Hawkins: The Brain Architects is a product of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. You can find us at developingchild.harvard.edu, where we will post any resources that were discussed in this episode. The next webinar in our Place Matters webinar series is on March 5th at 12pm EST—stay tuned to our social channels for more details. You can find us on Twitter @HarvardCenter, Facebook at Center Developing Child, and Instagram @DevelopingChildHarvard. Our music is Brain Power by Mela Collective. 

  Subscribe to our newletter

Explore Related Resources