Three Principles to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families


Core Principles of Development Can Help Us Redesign Policy and Practice

Recent advances in the science of brain development offer us an unprecedented opportunity to solve some of society’s most challenging problems, from widening disparities in school achievement and economic productivity to costly health problems across the lifespan. Understanding how the experiences children have starting at birth, even prenatally, affect lifelong outcomes—combined with new knowledge about the core capabilities adults need to thrive as parents and in the workplace—provides a strong foundation upon which policymakers and civic leaders can design a shared and more effective agenda.

The science of child development and the core capabilities of adults point to a set of “design principles” that policymakers and practitioners in many different sectors can use to improve outcomes for children and families. That is, to be maximally effective, policies and services should:

  1. Support responsive relationships for children and adults.
  2. Strengthen core life skills.
  3. Reduce sources of stress in the lives of children and families.

The three principles point to a set of key questions: What are policies, systems, or practices doing to address each principle? What could be done to address them better? What barriers prevent addressing them more effectively?

These three principles can guide decision-makers as they choose among policy alternatives, design new approaches, and shift existing practice in ways that will best support building healthy brains and bodies. They point to a set of key questions: What are current policies, systems, or practices doing to address each principle? What could be done to address them better? What barriers prevent addressing them more effectively?

Moreover, these design principles, grounded in science, can lead policymakers to think at all levels about the forces that could lead to better outcomes for children. At the individual level, policies can focus on skill-building for both kids and adults; at the human services level, they might focus on the critical place of relationships in promoting healthy development, supportive parenting, and economic productivity; and at the systemic or societal level, policies can emphasize reducing sources of stress that create lifelong challenges for children and make it extraordinarily difficult for adults to thrive as parents and breadwinners.

The Science Behind the Principles

Scientists have discovered that the experiences children have early in life—and the environments in which they have them—not only shape their brain architecture, but also affect whether, how, and when the developmental instructions carried in their genes are expressed. This is how the environment of relationships young children experience with adult caregivers, as well as early nutrition and the physical, chemical, and built environments, all get “under the skin” and influence lifelong learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health—for better or for worse. Starting at birth and continuing throughout life, our ability to thrive is affected by our ongoing relationships and experiences and the degree to which they are healthy, supportive, and responsive or not.

The biology of stress activation also explains why significant hardship or threat (e.g., from abuse, neglect, or extreme poverty) can lead to physiological and behavioral disruptions that can have lasting impact. Not all stress is bad—for example, children need to experience manageable amounts of stress in the presence of supportive adults to develop a healthy stress response system. But frequent or extreme experiences that cause excessive stress can be toxic to the architecture of children’s developing brains and can overload adults’ capacity to engage productively in work, families, and communities. Fortunately, most of us have powerful stress-protection shields in the form of supportive caregivers, families, and friends. Stable and responsive relationships in the earliest years of life help protect children from the potential harm that excessive stress can cause, and in adulthood they provide the buffering and hope that are necessary for resilience.

Experiencing significant adversity early in life can set up our body’s systems to be more susceptible to stress throughout life, with long-term negative consequences for physical and emotional health, educational achievement, economic success, social relationships, and overall well-being. For adults who have experienced a pile-up of adversity since childhood, the additional weight of current adversity, such as prolonged poverty, may overload their ability to provide the stable, responsive relationships children need and consistently meet the demands of the modern workplace. Therefore, these scientific findings are relevant to policy choices in a wide variety of areas—from traditional “children’s” areas such as pediatrics, early care and education, and child nutrition to “adult” domains such as income support, employment training, foster parent training, health care, and housing.

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