From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts : A science-based approach to building a more promising future for young children and families
Harvard University. Center of the Developing Child
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Half a century of program evaluation research has demonstrated repeatedly that effective early childhood services can improve life outcomes for children facing adversity, produce important benefits for society, and generate positive returns on investments. Policymakers and practitioners often invoke this evidence base to build support for existing programs, but the average magnitude of intervention effects has not increased substantially in 50 years, while the challenges most current programs were originally designed to address have become even more complex. During this same period, scientific understanding of the early origins of lifelong health and development has been advancing rapidly. These discoveries offer a compelling opportunity to generate creative, new approaches to problems that are not being resolved by existing services. The time has now come to raise the bar and leverage the frontiers of 21st-century science to pursue a bolder vision. While proposed solutions to these social and economic challenges fuel hotly contested partisan debates, knowledge about the foundations of healthy development is politically neutral and clear—whatever the source of the adversity, experiencing too much of it early in life without adequate support from adult caregivers (both inside and outside the home) is detrimental to child well-being. Although the full consequences of family structure, labor market transformations, K-16 education reform, and the cumulative toll of stress caused by discrimination and other social disadvantages all require serious attention, a deeper analysis of these issues is beyond the scope of this report. Instead, the document presents a research and development (R&D) approach that transcends partisan disagreement because it is built on a rigorously peer-reviewed, sciencebased understanding of how the foundations of learning, behavior, and health are built or weakened over time. Advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and epigenetics offer an unprecedented opportunity to stimulate new responses to these complex social, economic, and political challenges by explaining why young children facing adversity are more likely to have disrupted developmental trajectories. Neuroscience is also producing extensive evidence suggesting that the later we wait to support families with children who are at greatest risk, the more difficult (and likely more costly) it will be to achieve positive outcomes, particularly for those who experience the biological disruptions of toxic stress during the earliest years. More specifically, at a time when the discourse around early childhood investments is dominated by debates over preschool for 4-yearolds, the biological sciences cry out for attending to a missing niche in the field—new strategies in the prenatal-to-three period for families facing adversity.