November 20, 2018

Simms/Mann Think Tank Focuses on Children

It was an unusual day for Jay Sanderson. Rather than taking meetings and calls from his office on Wilshire Boulevard, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ president and CEO was attending the Simms/Mann Institute Think Tank conference at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

The conference, which took place on May 2, is an annual, daylong event on early childhood development that brings together world-renowned neuroscientists studying how the brain develops during the first three years of life with professionals who can translate new insights into best practices and then put them into action — pediatricians, OB-GYNs, social workers, educators and nonprofit leaders, among others.

Dr. Victoria Mann Simms, president of the Simms/Mann Family Foundation and Institute, and a child development specialist, told the Journal the think tank is designed to help close the information gap between researchers and practitioners so that more children and families can thrive in our high-pressure world.

Sanderson was among more than 500 people who signed up for the sold-out conference months in advance, to hear researchers talk about early factors that promote lifelong resilience. Presentations covered how parents can help their children feel less stressed; how involved fathers in particular can influence their children’s development of language and reading skills; and how helping children learn to recognize, understand and name their feelings from a very young age prepares them to successfully navigate the social and emotional challenges that crop up in adolescence and beyond.

“Every challenge that we face would be easier if we created healthy Jews,” Sanderson told the Journal after the event. “If we could start looking at a child’s health and well-being — as well as their Jewish connections — from birth, we would have fewer problems when they enter adulthood.”

“If we could start looking at a child’s health and well-being — as well as their Jewish connections — from birth, we would have fewer problems when they enter adulthood.” — Jay Sanderson

The Simms/Mann Institute partnered with Federation and Builders of Jewish Education in 2015 to pilot the First 36 Project, a fellowship program that teaches parent-and-me class facilitators about child development theory and cutting-edge neuroscience research. Thirty-six educators representing 18 early childhood centers ranging from Orthodox to Reform have participated to date, and the Simms/Mann Institute is now in conversation with organizations outside Los Angeles about expansion.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik, who works at Sinai Temple, spoke during a panel discussion at the General Assembly last November. She said that as a result of the training she received — which covered topics such as attachment, temperament, communication and empathy — she has felt more comfortable engaging other parents about the importance of early relationships and has incorporated more rituals and routines, which promote healthy brain development, into her family’s home life. In addition, she said the number of families engaged in Sinai’s Dor Chadash community for young families has increased dramatically in the past few years.

Another First 36 Project alum, Nicole Mevorakh, said the program gave her and a colleague the confidence they needed to launch a new class at Stephen Wise Temple and Schools. That class has recently doubled in size and has a waiting list for the summer.

“The First 36 Project is a proactive strategy to help create the strongest Jewish community by creating the strongest, most resilient Jews from the beginning,” Sanderson said.

“The work that we are doing, from the think tank to the First 36 Project to the CuddleBright Experience [a parenting tool the Simms/Mann Institute designed and produced to help parents and young children develop secure attachments and reduce anxiety during periods of separation] is about the power of relationships from birth,” Simms said. “If we can help people understand that our social, emotional and cognitive health are connected and interdependent, then we can improve the future of medicine and education, and we can improve lives.”

Dr. Pat Levitt, the Simms/Mann Chair in Developmental Neurogenetics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, emceed the conference, while Simms handed out this year’s Simms/Mann Institute Whole Child Awards to exceptional leaders working in the early childhood fields. Pediatrician Thomas Boyce, I-LABS Co-Directors Dr. Patricia Kuhl and Dr. Andrew Meltzoff, and Zero to Three Executive Director Matthew Melmed were recognized in the areas of medicine, community education and visionary leadership, respectively.

“We now know that healthy bonds build healthy brains, but our society doesn’t prioritize or make room for deep connections,” Simms said. “There’s so much pressure to be perfect, but it’s important for parents to understand that long-term contentment is something one builds piece by piece. Creating a meaningful life is an active, not a passive, process. This is what we need to teach our children so that they value themselves more than things.”

Shayna Rose Triebwasser is a philanthropic adviser who consults for the Simms/Mann Family Foundation and Institute.