Dr. Laura Jana

Hope Street Group Network Member Interview with Dr. Laura Jana, Pediatrician, educator, health communicator and author of The Toddler Brain

You first joined the Hope Street Group Network in 2015 as a key partner for our event Identifying Innovative Approaches to Strengthening Social Emotional Development in Early Education and Child Care with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation back in 2015. How have this and your other experiences working with leaders within and beyond the traditional early learning space informed your thinking and the creation of The Toddler Brain? 

As a pediatrician and early childhood advocate sitting at the intersect of many fields and looking to facilitate transformative change in the worlds of parenting, health, education (including early education), and even business, the opportunity to collaborate with both Hope Street Group and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at the 2015 early childhood event was particularly impactful for my work. The fact that the distinguished and diverse group of early childhood thought leaders, advocates, and funders in attendance were all focusing on innovative approaches to strengthening social emotional skills in the earliest years of life was very validating – given that I was at the same time recognizing just how highly prized these very same skills were in business and throughout life. What I found to be particularly exciting was the shared and powerful recognition that RWJF and Hope Street Group brought to the event – making clear the far-reaching impact that the early fostering of the social emotional and other skills (which I have collectively dubbed “QI Skills” in my new book) stand to have both on building a culture of health and on strengthening the critical learning-to-work continuum.

You’re a prolific author and co-author, what spurred you to write about the topic of brain science and what informed the development of the QI skills framework? 

Born and raised into the world of academic medicine, it was never actually in my master plan to become a “prolific author,” much less spend my time researching the “toolkit of skills needed to succeed” in today’s globally complex world. Given that my wide-ranging professional endeavors have all fundamentally revolved around improving the lives of children, however, I became increasingly convinced that the ability to tell the story of the foundational importance of investing in early childhood and the extensive and ever-growing body of brain science supporting it in a compelling and easy-to-understand way was the best way for me to make an impact.

As for the development of the QI Skills framework that serves as the foundation for The Toddler Brain, quite simply I recognized the fundamental absence of and need for a simple and shared vocabulary around the set of “soft,” “non-cognitive,” and “other” skills that everyone from pediatricians and preschool teachers to policy makers, CEOs and innovators was identifying as necessary to succeed in todays world. Hence my introduction of QI Skills – comprised of ME, WE, WHY, WILL, WIGGLE, WOBBLE and WHAT IF Skills – that are meant to capture and bring more clearly into focus the collective, shared interests that cross all realms. What Peter Drucker identifies as the “era of self-management” is what my early childhood and neuroscience colleagues recognize as the “impulse- or cognitive-control” aspect of executive function skills – skills that experience an early peak rate of development between the ages of 3 and 5 years. Weave them together and call them ME Skills and all of a sudden we’re speaking the same language and, as a result, I would argue, much better able to recognize and join forces around common goals.

What is one tip from The Toddler Brain that you would provide to new parents who are interested in fostering healthy brain development for their children that would also give them a sense of what they should expect from this book?

My overall intent is for The Toddler Brain to empower parents by helping them look beyond the day-to-day challenges of parenthood and gain a better understanding of the unrivaled potential they have to set their children up for future success. I do this by offering parents a strategic plan (a North Star of sorts) that will help guide them in a rapidly changing world. In a more tangible sense, my one tip for parents is to recognize and marvel in just how valuable a role they play in building their babies’ brain each and every time they talk, coo, sing, read books to and interact with their babies in a caring responsive way. That said, it’s worth pointing out that the title of the book is admittedly misleading, as The Toddler Brain is also intended to bring greater clarity to and empower anyone who is looking for ways to insure that all children are raised with the skills they, and their future employers, will need to succeed – an audience that clearly extends well beyond parents.

Your book begins with a thought-provoking question, “What if we are… raising our children to succeed in a world that no longer exists?” Parents are obviously critical to arming their children with the skills to succeed but is there any advice you would provide to employers and/or educators as they work with individuals to support/harness QI skills? 

I have found that one of the most striking aspects of QI Skills is that they don’t just apply to young children, and that the fostering of these skills should not simply be confined to the world of parenting. As you’ll notice in each and every skill chapter – I provide examples not only to guide parents on how best to cultivate the 7 QI Skills, but also to guide educators and employers. This is because QI Skills are of significant interest and value in the world of work. While hard-wiring a baby’s brain with these skills right from the start has been shown to offer the biggest return on investment, these skills can and should be fostered across the learning-to-work continuum. That’s why I also make it a point to reference studies and articles from the business world throughout the book that suggest it’s far better to engage than pamper, about emotional intelligence being recognized as two of the “hottest” words in corporate America, and of global CEOs identifying creativity as the most coveted of all skills. The bottom line is that in a world clamoring for a suitably skilled 21st century workforce, I strongly believe that taking QI Skills to heart and investing in strategic brain- and skill-building right from the very start is (or should be) everybody’s business – whether you’re a parent, an educator, an economist or an employer.