This blog post is written by Dr. Stephanie Weller, pediatrician and member of the Collaboration for Early Childhood’s Health and Development Committee.
I often tell parents in my pediatric practice that children are like sponges; they are quick learners, absorbing and learning from the world around them at an astounding speed.
You may say a word once and a toddler will never forget it. The more words a kid hears, whether through conversation or being read to, the better that child will be at speaking and reading. A child who has exposure to crayons, playdoh and puzzles is in a good position to practice and achieve fine motor dexterity. The environment in which a child is raised helps the growth of the child, physically, mentally and emotionally.
We are learning more and more about the factors that contribute to a child’s health, growth and development. Social determinants of health are the non-medical factors that influence health outcomes. I like the World Health Organization’s description of social determinants of health as the “conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wide set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.”
The air they breathe or the water they drink can have effects on children that last their lifetime. High lead levels and polluted air are examples that quickly come to mind. Similarly, financial security, access to high quality education, and safe housing are examples of forces that can shape an individual’s long-term health. Children experiencing unmet social needs are at significantly greater risk for chronic disease, mental and behavioral health concerns.
Take the poignant example of access to food. Income levels can determine how much a family can spend on food. Parental working hours can affect the time available for preparation of food. Location of housing in proximity to grocery stores and restaurants influence shopping patterns and access to food. All of this can contribute to what a child eats for dinner. Lack of good nutrition can lead to poor health. In this example, there are services that can help. We have local food pantries. There are school-based free meal programs. For a broader example, consider the impact job training programs can have on household income. All of this can help put food on the table for the children in our community. Interventions like these that can help mediate socioeconomic factors can have a profound effect on an individual’s success.
How does one connect families that need assistance to the resources that are already available within our community? The Collaboration for Early Childhood has taken on this issue. The Collaboration has a growing list of community resources and partners, including childcare providers, food pantries, domestic violence resources, homeless shelters, job training, mental health resources, etc.
The Collaboration also networks with most of the childcare centers in the area. At the childcare centers, the Collaboration is already coordinating routine screening to monitor young children’s vision, hearing and achievement of developmental and social-emotional milestones. In addition to screening for these health factors, the Collaboration plans to start screening for social determinants of health. The families whose children attend these childcare centers may be asked through our pilot program, to fill out a questionnaire on social determinants of health. Upon review of the questionnaire, the Collaboration can connect the families with the assistance they may need.
Interventions to connect families with the social and community resources they need are important for improving overall health and wellbeing in our community. To learn more about ways that your practice or early childhood program can get involved in this exciting work, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Dr. Weller, the Guest Contributor
Dr. Stephanie Weller is a pediatrician and member of the Collaboration for Early Childhood’s Health and Development Committee. She has also provided parent workshops geared toward community families for the Collaboration for Early Childhood. For the past 15 years Dr. Weller has practiced pediatrics, and she currently provides care in a multi-group practice through Advocate Health, as well as for a PCC Community Wellness Center. Additionally, she performs nursery rounds at Illinois Masonic Medical Center.
Dr. Weller, who has served in the Peace Corps in Tanzania prior to attending medical school at University of Illinois at Chicago, currently lives with her family in Oak Park. She became involved with The Collaboration for Early Childhood through her role as the Medical Director of the Oak Park River Forest Infant Welfare Society’s Children Clinic, where she worked from 2014-2019. She currently serves as a representative of community pediatricians on the Health and Development Committee of the Collaboration for Early Childhood.
Dr. Weller, in partnership with a sub-committee of the Health and Development Committee of the Collaboration for Early Childhood, applied for and was awarded an American Academy of Pediatrics, Community Access to Child Health (CATCH) grant for the 2022-2023 grant year. She will oversee the exciting work of the new “Community Connect” program which will connect families to needed community resources. We are thrilled that Dr. Weller has chosen to work with the Collaboration to build on the existing developmental screening systems to incorporate social determinants of health screenings for children and families, and build awareness around their impact on child development.