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New science provides compelling framework for early childhood investment

Susan Notes:



There's good news and bad news: It is good that the gap emphasized here is the gap between what we know and what we do to support positive life outcomes for children. It is bad in that it relies on the same old prescription: hire professionals to "fix" children in learning centers--outside their home environment. I'm waiting for the study that shows how raising the family income to a living wage affects learning outcomes of the children in those families. I fear that claiming that "science" will cure kids opens the door wider to more abominations like DIBELS.

By Al Race

A remarkable convergence of new knowledge about the developing brain, the human genome, and the extent to which early childhood experiences influence later learning, behavior, and health now offers policymakers an exceptional opportunity to change the life prospects of vulnerable young children, says a new report from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

The report, "A Science-Based Framework for Early Childhood Policy," integrates new research findings in neuroscience with extensive evaluations of early childhood programs, and provides a highly credible, comprehensive guide for evidence-based policymaking. It was released today (Aug. 6) in Boston at a press conference at the Annual Meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

âThe early childhood years lay the foundation for later economic productivity, responsible citizenship, and a lifetime of sound physical and mental health,â says Jack P. Shonkoff, director of the center and one of the reportâs principal authors. âThis document is designed to help both public and private sector leaders make wise investments in our nationâs future by supporting the healthy development of young children and the needs of their families in the most effective ways.â

Prepared in response to requests from state policymakers around the country, and released with bipartisan participation at the Annual Meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Boston, the report was co-authored by the National Forum on Early Childhood Program Evaluation and the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, two initiatives located at the Harvard center. Based on a rigorous peer-review process, it provides a concise overview of the scientific principles of early childhood and early brain development, along with an inventory of specific effectiveness factors associated with a variety of programs that enhance outcomes for vulnerable children.

âAs policymakers, we receive a lot of different messages about what is best for our children, but when science can be brought to bear on critical issues involving child development, it can give us the unbiased information that we need to develop the best policies for our states,â said Kansas Speaker Melvin Neufeld. âAll of our citizens will benefit when we can base our policies on a solid understanding of the effects of early childhood experiences and the best investments we can make to improve the chances for all kids to have a successful future.â

Because brain architecture is shaped by both genetics and early experience, the report says, policies that support the ability of parents and providers of early care and education to interact positively with children in stable and stimulating environments help create a sturdy foundation for effective learning, socially adaptive behavior, and lifelong physical and mental health. Four decades of program evaluation research provide a wealth of knowledge about both successful and ineffective interventions, and illustrate that even the best programs can be improved by the continuous development and evaluation of new strategies, particularly for the most vulnerable target groups. The report also concludes that ensuring positive experiences for children in the earliest years is likely to produce better outcomes than providing remediation programs at a later age. A review of cost-benefit studies documents strong return on investment from high-quality programs for vulnerable children beginning as early as prenatally and as late as age 4.

âIn Washington, science helped us find common ground,â said State Representative Ruth Kagi. âWe learned from science that childrenâs birth-to-five experiences are closely linked to their school success. Now we are one of the leading states in the nation as far as bipartisan, comprehensive early childhood policies that make sense for children.â

The Center on the Developing Child, a cross-disciplinary academic center at Harvard, was founded in 2006 to generate, translate, and apply knowledge in the service of closing the gap between what we know and what we do to support positive life outcomes for children. The National Forum on Early Childhood Program Evaluation is a multi-university collaboration launched in 2006 to learn more about what early childhood interventions work best and for whom through the analysis, synthesis, translation, and dissemination of findings from program evaluation studies. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, with 13 members from academic institutions across the country, was established in 2003 to translate and communicate the science of early childhood and early brain development into informed public policy.

For a copy of the report, go to www.developingchild.harvard.edu.


SUMMARY OF ESSENTIAL FINDINGS
A Science-Based Framework for Early Childhood Policy Using Evidence to Improve Outcomes in Learning, Behavior, and Health for Vulnerable Children


A New Publication from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

The path to our nationâs future prosperity and security begins with the well-being of all
our children, yet state and federal policymakers often struggle with confusing information
about which strategies can actually improve outcomes for children at risk for problems.
As scientists, we believe that advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, genetics, and
child development research, combined with four decades of rigorous program evaluation
data, can now provide the common ground on which policymakers, business executives,
civic leaders, and practitioners can design effective policies for children in the first five years of life. After vigorous debate among experts representing numerous fields, we
present the following summary of what we know from credible, peer-reviewed research.
Early experiences determine whether a childâs brain architecture will provide a
strong or weak foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. The
interaction of genes and experience shapes the architecture of the developing brain, and
the active agent is the âserve and returnâ nature of childrenâs relationships with the
important adults in their lives. Policies that support the ability of parents, providers of
early care and education, and other community members to interact positively with
children in stable and stimulating environments help create a sturdy foundation for later
school achievement, economic productivity, and responsible citizenship.

Young children need positive relationships, rich learning opportunities, and safe environments, not quick fixes or magic bullets. There are many ways to increase the availability of growth-promoting experiences for young children, in their homes and in a variety of child care or preschool settings, as long as programs are well implemented and match the needs of the children and families they serve. Core concepts of neuroscience and child development apply equally to all early childhood policies and practices, and do not vary depending on program category, administrative structure, or funding source.

Four decades of program evaluation research point to the following âeffectiveness
factorsâ that can enhance development in the first five years of life:

⢠Access to basic medical care for pregnant women and children can help prevent
threats to healthy development as well as provide early diagnosis and appropriate
management when problems emerge.

⢠Environmental policies that reduce the level of known neurotoxins in the environment
will protect embryos, fetuses, and young children from exposure to substances that
damage their developing brains.

⢠Not all services are effective. Center-based programs that have positive impacts on
young childrenâs development provide some combination of the following features:

o highly skilled staff;

o small class sizes and high adult-to-child ratios;

o a language-rich environment;

o age-appropriate curricula and stimulating materials in a safe physical setting;

o warm, responsive interactions between staff and children; and

o high and consistent levels of child participation.

⢠Programs that cost less because they employ less skilled staff are a waste of money if
they do not have the expertise needed to produce measurable impacts.

⢠Scaling up successful, model interventions into effective, multi-site programs is a
formidable challenge that can be addressed, at least in part, by establishing quality
standards and monitoring service delivery on a routine basis.

Program evaluation research also identifies intervention strategies that have been
shown to be effective for children and families who are at risk for poor outcomes:

⢠For vulnerable families who are expecting a first child, early and intensive support by
skilled home visitors can produce significant benefits for both the child and parents.

⢠For young children from low-income families, high-quality, center-based, early
education programs can enhance child cognitive and social development.

⢠For young children from families experiencing significant adversity, two-generation
programs that simultaneously provide direct support for parents and high-quality,
center-based care and education for the children can have positive impacts on both.

⢠For young children experiencing toxic stress from abuse or neglect, severe maternal
depression, parental substance abuse, or family violence, interventions that provide
specialized services matched to the problems they are asked to address can prevent
the disruption of brain architecture and promote better developmental outcomes.

⢠For families living in poverty, work-based income supplements for working parents
have been demonstrated to boost the achievement of some young children.

Effective programs are implemented well, evaluated regularly, and improved
continuously. Even the best programs can be improved by the continuous development,
testing, implementation, and refinement of new strategies to produce stronger outcomes,
particularly for the most vulnerable children and those with challenging behavior or
serious mental health problems.

Ensuring that children have positive experiences prior to entering school is likely to
lead to better outcomes than remediation programs at a later age, and significant
up-front costs can generate a strong return on investment. Cost-benefit studies have
demonstrated positive returns on high-quality programs for vulnerable children beginning
as early as prenatally and as late as age 4.
______________________________________________________________
The document from which this summary was created was co-authored by the National
Forum on Early Childhood Program Evaluation and the National Scientific Council on
the Developing Child. For greater detail, please see the full paper, downloadable at
http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu.

— Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University
Harvard University Gazette
2007-08-06


INDEX OF RESEARCH THAT COUNTS


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