Record donation launches new York research project

 Stuart Shanker and young friends

Above: Stuart Shanker, distinguished research professor of psychology and philosophy at York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, interacts with children at the Mothercraft day-care facility in Toronto at the launch of the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative

York launched the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative Monday, an early childhood development study that will put the University at the forefront of worldwide study in the field. The project was made possible by the largest private research donation in York’s history.

Lorna Marsden and Ethel HarrisThe $5-million gift, made through the York University Foundation by the late Milton Harris and his wife Ethel, will allow Stuart Shanker, distinguished research professor of psychology and philosophy in York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, and his colleagues to test and refine the ground-breaking intervention techniques they developed to help all children’s brain development, including those with severe disabilities such as autism.

Right: From left, York President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden presents Ethel Harris with a plaque commemorating her family’s donation to the York University Foundation

“I firmly believe we are at the dawn of a new age,” Shanker told an enthusiastic audience gathered for the announcement at Mothercraft, a Toronto child-care facility known for its use of new ideas in childhood development.

The collaborative initiative 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. The initiative will further investigate the findings recently put forth by Shanker and renowned child psychologist Dr. Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School, in their book, The First Idea (Da Capo Press, 2004).

Ethel Harris said the project was her husband’s “baby” and he was very excited about it. “He very much admired Stuart and Stanley’s book, especially their challenge to the orthodox view that our higher capacities of language, reason, reflective consciousness and morality are solely determined by our genes,” Harris said.

“Canada is quickly establishing itself as a world leader in the area of early childhood development,” said Lorna R. Marsden, York president and vice-chancellor. “We are extremely proud at this most generous gift from Milton and Ethel Harris to a research initiative which will position York University at the forefront of these national efforts enabling us all to understand how formative learning and nurturing experiences promote the healthy development of the mind and the brain.”

Rhonda LentonRhonda Lenton (left), dean of York’s Atkinson Faculty, also offered her thanks saying, “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.”

The Harris’ donation will allow the creation of two laboratories: one to further test and refine the developmental model outlined in The First Idea and the intervention techniques based on this that have shown dramatic results in the treatment of autism; and another that will focus on the neuroscience that underlies them. “Milt thought it was imperative that we come up with the scientific proof that can’t be questioned so that every scientist in the world would see that this is the direction that developmental science has to take in the 21st century,” Shanker said.

Shanker, who is also co-director of the Council of Human Development, will lead the work of the institute 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. Shanker’s earlier research into the development of primates was inspired by renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, chair of the initiative’s scientific research board, who will work with him on several new studies. Their work will be aimed at proving that age-old parental care-giving practices that shape the development of a child’s mind and brain are shared with “our closest not-human primate cousins”.

Paul Marcus, Ethel Harris and Rhonda Lenton

Right: From left, Paul Marcus, president of the York University Foundation, Ethel Harris and Rhonda Lenton

Harris said her husband was interested in primatology for many years and strongly believed the study of apes could illuminate our own growth as humans. “He had great expectations that the new understanding reached through this project would help parents and children cope with our ever changing and challenging world,” she said. “I share Milt’s enthusiasm and will remain committed to this work in order to see our hopes fulfilled.”

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 or are constricted, developmental problems can arise, including autism and severe language disorders.

“The most exciting part of the research was that we discovered if you can figure out a way to work either with these biological problems or around them, you can restore that child onto the pathway of emotional development,” Shanker added.

Ethel Harris and family“We have strong preliminary studies proving our theory and now we have to do rigorous outcome studies, followed by EEG studies,” Shanker said. “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.

Right: Members of the Harris family at the launch of the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative, from lower left, Naomi Harris, Ethel Harris, Rebecca Scovel; from upper left, Sara Traore and Boulaye Traore

“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,” said 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.”

Monday’s launch event was attended by several members of the Harris family as well as researchers and staff from Mothercraft. Guests also heard the dramatic story of Patricia Stacey, mother of Walker Stacey, whose treatment for a severe, early form of autism using DIR techniques she recounts in her book, The Boy Who Loved Windows: Opening the Heart and Mind of a Child Threatened with Autism (Da Capo Press, 2003).

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