Early Health and Early Learning: Q&A with Phyllis Glink

Published May 4, 2017 under Blog

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Since 1996, the Irving Harris Foundation has supported our work to help families navigate their own path to healthier births and improved parent-child bonds. And with her guidance and advocacy, Phyllis Glink has spurred HealthConnect One from a hospital-based program to a national leader in respectful, community-rooted support for pregnancy, birth, and early parenting. We asked Phyllis recently to share a little about her career.

What brought you to the field of early health and early learning?

When I was young, I wanted to be a pediatrician because I loved children and wanted to help people. As I got older, I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor but that I still had the same passion to ensure that all children and families have an equal opportunity to be successful, including the same access to services and supports they needed to thrive.

At the Harris School of Public Policy, I focused my work on early childhood, child and family support, and poverty and developed the skills I needed to refocus my career on early learning and children’s mental health policy. I had the great fortune to be introduced to and hired by Irving Harris right before I graduated and was thrilled when he offered me the opportunity to work with him at the Foundation. I have had the good fortune to be there since 1996 and have been able to work with our partners to strengthen the early learning and early health fields in Illinois, federally and in states across the country.

Do you find people approach early health and early learning differently now than they did 10, 20, or 30 years ago?

I started working in the maternal-child health and early learning philanthropic field 21 years ago. I had the honor and privilege to work for and learn from Irving Harris, who was a true visionary. Irving used his voice and resources to tirelessly advocate for increased investments in higher quality, comprehensive services and policies that support pregnant women, infants, toddlers, and families. He was ahead of his time in his understanding of the comprehensive needs of children and families during their most critical developmental time and the importance of integrating services and systems to better support whole child and family development and well-being.

In particular, Irving and the Foundation have emphasized the importance of recognizing the impact of very early trauma and stress on infant development and family functioning for over 25 years. We were advocating – often alone – for more support for prevention and early intervention services and investments like the Community-Based Doula Program. Programs that support healthy pregnancies and births, emphasize child parent bonding and attachment, and support child development and early learning were much rarer at that time.

Today, there is a greater understanding of the importance of early learning, whole child development, the impact of toxic stress on the developing child, maternal and paternal depression and its impact on development, etc. We are starting to see state and federal policies change to better support this critical period in the life of a family and young child but there is much more to do.

Can you talk about how a strong relationship between parent and newborn impacts school readiness and early learning?

One of the strongest predictors of school and life success is a healthy attachment between a parent or primary caregiver and a newborn baby. Children who have a parent who responds to their needs, is attuned to their moods and interacts with them in a positive way will develop the social, emotional and regulatory skills needed to help them succeed in school. The randomized controlled trials on the Community Doula Model show that doulas help young parents acquire the skills and agency they need to be responsive and connected caregivers to their children and that they interact with their babies in a way that promotes school readiness. HC One is focused on empowering young mothers to support their children’s healthy development and to advocate for themselves and their babies. It is a very powerful model that works at the intersection of maternal health and children’s development and early learning, and it has demonstrated an ability to transform lives.

Are there other ways you see maternal and child health intersect with early learning?

Developing a firm foundation for success in school and throughout life depends on the extent to which emotional, intellectual, and physical growth are nurtured and encouraged by parents, caregivers, and other important adults during the child’s earliest days, beginning as early as pregnancy. Confidence, curiosity, self-control and the capacity to communicate with and relate to others are critical social-emotional capacities that very young children must develop in the first few years of life to be better prepared to succeed in school. These skills are developed only through healthy, responsive and nurturing relationships with the adults in their lives. Making sure new mothers are supported and are able to respond to their own and their child’s needs requires us to provide family and mental health supports to treat maternal depression and address other needs as appropriate.

What does community support during a child’s first 2 years make possible for the future?

When families with young children have a robust social support network and access to high quality services that address their comprehensive needs, they feel “held”. These resources should empower young parents to seek out and receive the help they need to nurture and care for their children. While cliché, it takes a village to raise healthy, happy and thriving children – it is difficult to go it alone. Families today come in all shapes and sizes – there is no right configuration.

As long as young children have access to stable, responsive care from nurturing adults, they will thrive.

Phyllis Glink is executive director of the Irving Harris Foundation in Chicago, where she works in the area of early childhood development and child and family welfare.

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