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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Building Adult Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes: A Theory of Change (with Video)

From Frontiers of Innovation 
at Harvard's Center on the Developing Child

March 7, 2014

This 5-minute video depicts a theory of change from the Frontiers of Innovation community for achieving breakthrough outcomes for vulnerable children and families. It describes the need to focus on building the capabilities of caregivers and strengthening the communities that together form the environment of relationships essential to children’s lifelong learning, health, and behavior.

About Frontiers of Innovation

Launched in May, 2011, Frontiers of Innovation (FOI) focuses on the work of a community of researchers, practitioners, policymakers, philanthropists, and experts in systems change from across North America.

The goal of FOI is to bring about substantially improved outcomes for vulnerable young children whose needs (or whose caregivers' needs) are not being fully met by existing policies and programs. To do that, FOI seeks to spur change in the field by forging cross-sector collaborations that prompt creativity, support experimentation, and foster learning from experience.

FOI’s work draws on science, including advances in the biological, behavioral, and social sciences, to:

1.) Identify reasons why children’s development stays on track or goes off course;

2.) Devise theories of change about how to produce better outcomes; and,

3.) design and test new intervention approaches and measure their effectiveness in reducing barriers to learning and strengthening lifelong physical and mental health.

Stated simply, the FOI community views current best practices as a promising starting point, not a final destination.

Using Science to Bring About Change

A major influence on FOI’s work is our growing understanding of how the over-activation of stress response systems in young children can lead to disruptions in developing brain architecture. When the foundation of that brain architecture is weakened by toxic stress, that creates barriers to learning, as well as the potential for lifelong health problems.

Although many questions about precise causes remain to be answered, growing concerns about the consequences of toxic stress in young children have led the FOI community to propose two fundamental shifts in thinking for early childhood policy and practice:

1.) Investments in young children should be viewed as critical building blocks for lifelong health promotion and disease prevention, not just strategies to enhance school readiness and later academic achievement; and,

2.) There is a compelling need for more effective strategies to protect children from the biological consequences of significant adversity, not just to provide enriched learning opportunities.

Building on these two propositions, the initial portfolio of FOI activities is currently focused on exploring three ideas:

1.) Protecting children from the impacts of toxic stress requires selective skill building—not simply the provision of information and support—for the adults who care for them;

2.) Interventions that improve the caregiving environment by strengthening the executive function and self-regulation skills of parents with limited education will also enhance their employability, thereby providing an opportunity to augment child outcomes by strengthening the economic and social stability of the family; and,

3.) Community-based initiatives and broad-based, systems approaches are likely to be more effective in promoting healthy development and reducing intergenerational disparities if they focus explicitly on strengthening neighborhood-level resources and capacities that buffer young children from the adverse impacts of toxic stress.

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