SPACE

Social Work Now

THE JOURNAL OF THE ONTARIO ASSOCIATION OF SOCIAL WORKERS

The Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development - 
A Bold Answer to an Unmet Need in Child Development

Dr. Karen Bell & Susanne Truelson

"I want professors of all disciplines to integrate the best of what we know about human development into their research, teaching and mentoring of graduate students. I want them to build new bridges between and among their disciplines that go beyond the old-fashioned interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches. It is time to think 'trans-disciplinary' if we are to make headway in meeting tomorrow's big challenges."
- Dr. J. Fraser Mustard

Evidence is mounting that the environment a child experiences during the first 2,000 days of life -- from conception to age six -- helps set the trajectory for long-term health outcomes and is therefore critical to life-long well-being. Despite this evidence, society as a whole continues to fail to nurture this crucially important developmental period, potentially compromising a child's start in life. Named in honour of the late Dr. J. Fraser Mustard (1927-2011), a tireless advocate of the importance of the early years, the Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development (FMIHD) was created at the University of Toronto in 2012, as a bold and necessary response to this unmet need.

Mustard felt strongly that the best way to improve and foster healthy early child development was via trans-disciplinary research and education. Firm in his belief that each of the child-facing professions offered unique and relevant insight into key aspects of child development, Dr. Mustard felt that by working together and sharing these experiences, skills and practices could be improved to the ultimate benefit of children. With this trans-disciplinary perspective in mind, the FMIHD was conceived and designed to specifically break down traditional academic silos and blur professional boundaries. Indeed, the Institute's directors, led by Executive Director Dr. Stephen Lye, and its affiliated researchers hail from distinct University of Toronto faculties including the Faculties of Education, Social Work, Medicine, Public Health, Arts and Sciences, and Nursing, amongst others. With this trans-disciplinary synergy, the FMIHD aims to make meaningful progress in three strategic areas of focus: Research, Knowledge Mobilization & Exchange, and Education & Training.

FMIHD: RESEARCH

Under the Direction of Research Director Dr. Stephen Matthews, Professor of Physiology, Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Medicine at the University of Toronto, the FMIHD's research program strives to generate novel trans-disciplinary informed knowledge on early human development within four key research areas: Healthy Kids, Developing Brain and Human Potential, Aboriginal Health and Well-being, and The World's Child. Each theme is led by dedicated researchers, selected specifically for their world-renowned expertise in the area and their ardent commitment to achieving meaningful change. Themes were selected based on the most currently pressing needs of children, as well as in the areas where advances in knowledge and interventions might tangibly influence health outcome, and/or learning and social function across a child's development. The mission of the FMIHD is to help all children, regardless of origin, to reach their full potential, which is why two of the research themes are focussed on two particularly vulnerable groups of children -- The World's Child on those from low- and middle-income countries, and Aboriginal Health and Well-being on Canada's Aboriginal youth, who suffer the highest rates of obesity, drug abuse, mental health and suicide, as well as the lowest rates of school achievement.

FMIHD: KNOWLEDGE MOBILIZATION & EXCHANGE - ACT NOW
A second focus of the FMIHD is its knowledge exchange and policy outreach arm, ACT NOW (Achieving Change Through kNOWledge), within which researchers, faculty members and students work directly with policy-makers and community members (e.g. front-line health care workers or those involved in child care, teaching or social work) to strengthen current understandings and approaches related to early human development. ACT NOW transcends the world of academia, to ensure that Institute breakthroughs are translated into policy and practice recommendations that benefit the surrounding community. 

ACT NOW is run under the supervision of Director Dr. Barbara Fallon, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto's Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, whose research has informed front-line child welfare workers and policy-makers and also contributed to key policy implementations. Under Dr. Fallon's direction, ACT NOW engages in collaborative research projects that further the Institute's understanding and implementation of values and actions, identified as being of key importance to optimal early child development. Current projects include the Evaluation of Aboriginal Head Start Programs in collaboration with Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, and the Vaccine Hesitancy Study in collaboration with SickKids Hospital, examining the reasons behind some parents' decisions not to vaccinate their children. ACT NOW is also currently engaged in a Professional Development Evaluation project, which seeks to determine the mechanisms put in place by professional bodies to prioritize continued learning in their membership. Our current understanding of how early-life experience influences child and brain development has greatly improved, revealing tangible avenues through which to maximize health and well-being. However, the optimal utilization of these new findings requires that professionals remain up-to-date on new research evidence. By establishing what different professional bodies are doing to transfer the latest science and knowledge of early childhood development to front-line workers, we will be in a better position to evaluate whether and how these efforts might be improved in order to help provide children with the best possible quality of care. 

FMIHD: EDUCATION & TRAINING
The final strategic area of focus for the FMIHD is to grow research and academic capacity via enhanced, trans-disciplinary education and training. The Institute offers innovative programs at the undergraduate and graduate level, accepting students from across a multitude of study areas -- from medicine to education, economics to social work, law to music. By breaking down existing academic silos, a new generation of graduates will emerge who are able to seamlessly integrate novel perspectives on early human development into their fields of study and practice. The academic programs at the FMIHD will ensure that current and future generations of leading human development experts will possess the knowledge and skill-set appropriate to such a continually evolving, complex field.

In addition to undergraduate and graduate education, and as part of the FMIHD's commitment to affecting change at the front line, the Institute is also currently working in conjunction with the Atkinson Centre for Society and Child Development, and Red River College in Alberta to finalize an online continuing education course on early child development. The course will be used as a core content resource in child protection training and will include information on brain development and epigenetics, subjects which are not traditionally part of the social work curriculum. This deviation from traditional approaches will benefit child-facing social workers, as they will be better positioned to understand the scientific links between early environments and child development. This enhanced scientific understanding will better enable social workers to identify potential problems, and deliver interventions directly to families, ultimately serving to enhance the level of care provided to children.

FMIHD: Relevance to Social Workers
The work at the FMIHD is relevant not only to aspiring and existing social workers, but of all child-facing professionals. By changing our mindset about working independently within our own respective professional boundaries, we can challenge existing knowledge thresholds and reach new learning potentials for the betterment of children. The FMIHD hopes that by training aspiring social workers alongside other aspiring child-facing professionals, graduates will have a greater familiarity and appreciation for findings outside of their own field. Moreover, by incorporating key findings from the neuroscience, pediatric and psychiatric communities into novel undergraduate, graduate and continuing education training areas, the FMIHD is better equipping child-facing professionals and enhancing child care outcomes.

Karen Bell, PhD, was Research Assistant for ACT NOW - Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development (FMIHD) until early 2015, and Susanne Truelson, MA, is Knowledge Mobilization Coordinator of ACT NOW.