Breakthrough in understanding of children's brain development to help parents set kids on path to emotional, intellectual health

A major new research initiative at York University will build on new knowledge of the brain’s development, and help set children --including those with developmental disorders -- on the path towards emotional and intellectual health.

York’s Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative (MEHRI) is the first of its kind in Canada and uses the pioneering clinical technique of DIR (Individual-Difference Relationship-Based Therapy), an intervention approach that mobilizes the emotions of children to promote healthy development.

MEHRI, launched at the childcare facility Mothercraft, will further investigate the findings recently put forth by York professor Stuart Shanker and renowned child psychologist Dr. Stanley Greenspan in their book, The First Idea.

Shanker and Greenspan have uncovered the critical missing link in how a child’s mind makes the leap from automatic action to thought – literally, how the human brain learns to think. They have formulated innovative new methods to treat children whose developmental processes are impeded, such as those with autism. Their research has resulted in techniques that all parents can use to better their child’s emotional and intellectual development. MEHRI researchers will work directly with children who are developing typically and with those who have various biological challenges.

The $5 million gift, through the York University Foundation, is the single largest private research gift in York’s history, and the single largest donation of any kind to York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies.

“This research initiative will allow us to deepen our understanding of how the minds of children develop,” says Shanker, a Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology and Philosophy in York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies. “An alarming number of children in our society currently suffer from developmental, learning, mental health or social disorders, and their numbers are growing. Ultimately, our goal is to benefit all children.”

Shanker and Greenspan have been working together for nearly a decade, engaged in research and clinical observations. They have uncovered four formative levels of vital nurturing interactions that lead to language acquisition and reflective thinking. Special patterns of emotional signals must take place between a child and a parent or caregiver in order for the child to master these stages. They concluded that when these interactions do not occur, developmental problems can arise, including autism and severe language disorders.

“We have strong preliminary studies proving our theory and now we have to do rigorous outcome studies, followed by EEG studies. One very exciting area we will be pursuing involves examining the brains of children pre- and post-intervention, and comparing them with the wider population of children.”

“While conventional knowledge holds that the ability to reason is genetically hardwired into components of our brains from birth, our research shows that reason is in fact formed by emotion itself, by the responses of infants to their environment and to their caregivers,” says Shanker. “In fact, the brain starts to work as a seamless whole as a result of these interactions. They are the missing link in the development of symbolic thought and language and a key to treating developmental difficulties.”

York University President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna Marsden said, “This new research initiative will be at the very forefront of our knowledge of human development. Its potential implications are international in scope and human in impact. York's Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative will foster exciting opportunities for collaboration to address these challenges into the 21st century.”

Rhonda Lenton, Dean of York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies, said, “We are truly grateful to the late Milton Harris, the generous benefactor and visionary behind the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative. By creating this Initiative, the Harris family has established a legacy of world-class research at York that is crucial to improving the lives of future generations of children.”

Shanker will lead MEHRI at York, working collaboratively with a research team and international partners in children’s development, while Greenspan will serve as chief advisor, overseeing all DIR training.

The Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative at York University is set to become the premier international facility for the investigation of theory and research pertaining to the development of the human mind. It will advance the study of childhood developmental processes, in order to fully explore how to stimulate and mobilize them and return children to a healthy developmental path. Clinical techniques will be further formulated and tested in order to aid children in developing the tools and coping mechanisms required to succeed in today’s challenging social climate.

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The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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