Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child Identifies Three Guiding Principles for Policymakers and Program Developers

As part of a series of papers considering the role of science across policy, the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, led by Dr. Jack Shonkoff M.D., released its second installment, Science to Policy and Practice: Three Principles to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families.

The working paper identifies three interconnected principles:

  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

These three principles are evidence-based and can guide the development of new policies or program strategies; propose changes in policy or system operations; and are ways to assess current policies and operations in the field. In addition, they are intended to elevate the primacy of supporting healthy bodies and brains, recognizing that when this is accounted for, subsequent goals are better positioned for positive outcomes.

  1. Support responsive relationships for children and adults.

    The benefits of responsive relationships bolster brain architecture building in the early years for children, equipping children and adults with resilience. The working paper includes examples for applying this principle to both policy and practice, of which continuous access to child care options that employ best practices for fostering positive relationships is prioritized.
  1. Strengthen core life skills.

    The second principle posits there are core skills from which our capacity to develop and hone more complex skills are built upon. These essential skills, which are not innate and can be supported with access to high-quality early learning and care, include the ability to focus, plan for and achieve goals, adapt to changing situations, and resist impulsive behaviors. Early learning policy can meaningfully apply this design principle by supporting children’s academic success with opportunities to develop executive functioning and self-regulating skills.
  1. Reduce sources of stress in the lives of children and families.

    While stress is a normal part of life, the working paper differentiates between intermittent, manageable stress and the “unremitting, severe stress that is a defining feature of life for millions of children and families experiencing deep poverty, community violence, substance abuse, and/or mental illness.” The latter poses long-lasting challenges and health risks for both children and adults. In particular for young children, chronic stress can negatively influence the brain and other organs during this critical period of development. Supportive relationships can act as a buffer in these cases, mitigating the effects of stress. In order to facilitate an environment so these supportive relationships can form and thrive, policy design should consider ways to provide consistent, adequate funding to prevent unexpected disruptions to services, so that adults are able to focus on responsive caregiving.

By articulating an evidence-based guidepost for continuous improvements to new and existing policies and programs, these three principles elevate the impact of investing in children through high-quality early learning and care and further support bridging research on best practices to policy and practice.