ASCD California

Q&A: California’s first-ever surgeon general on her plans to tackle toxic stress in children

03/27/2019 12:04 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)
r. Nadine Burke Harris, California's surgeon general, tends to a child in her office.

Gov. Gavin Newsom made it clear throughout his campaign that improving the health and welfare of California’s children and young families would be among his signature issues.

To underscore his commitment in the days after he took office, Newsom named Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician who specializes in the impacts of trauma and toxic stress on the health of children, as the state’s first-ever surgeon general.

The 44-year-old Burke Harris was born in Canada and lived in Jamaica when she was a toddler, but spent most of her childhood in Palo Alto. In 2005, after earning her bachelor’s degree at Berkeley and her medical degree from UC Davis, she founded a clinic that serves children in the low-income neighborhoods of Bay View-Hunters Point in southeast San Francisco.

Through her medical practice and research, Burke Harris has become recognized as a pioneer in the study of how adverse childhood experiences affect the developing brain and can lead to lifelong health and mental health problems. EdSource recently caught up with Burke Harris, who is the mother of four boys, and talked with her about what she plans to do in her new job. Her answers to our questions were edited for length and clarity.

Gov. Newsom has made funding early education one of his highest priorities. How do you plan on incorporating trauma-informed teaching into the overall effort?

We’re understanding more than we ever had before the role of experience and environment in early childhood in shaping lifelong health outcomes. That is the data and research we are seeing across the board. So, when you look at something that is such a huge public health issue then we must recognize that to implement public health solutions we need to be engaging across sectors.

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