How Early Development Lessons Can Drive Public Policy

Could the science that drives early childhood learning also help drive our public policy?

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child released a compelling report titled “Three Principles to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families.”

The report states: “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.”

The authors highlight three such design principles – each based on scientific research – and outline not only ways to apply each principle to policy, but also examples of opportunities to apply this principle to practice.

These principles include:

  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.

Over the next days, we’ll explore each of these principles more deeply.

Principle 1: Support responsive relationships for children and adults

Positive, responsive relationships not only promote healthy brain development in children, but also help prevent “toxic stress” responses in challenging times.

Further, “by supporting responsive, serve-and-return interactions between adults and children, and strong relationships between caseworkers and their adult clients, sound public policy has the power to promote children’s healthy development and reinforce adults’ core life skills.”

Relationships also are key as children progress to adolescence: “The single most common factor for children and teens who develop the capacity to overcome serious hardship is having at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”

What does this mean for policymakers?

The report highlights examples of ways “to apply the support responsive relationships design principle to policy.” These include:

  • “Provide sufficient flexibility in benefits to avoid the disruption of critical relationships with caregivers that happens when children cycle in and out of programs due to loss of a child care subsidy, housing instability, or involvement in the child welfare system.”
  • “Establish policies that strengthen family relationships whenever possible; for example, promote frequent contact between children in out-of-home care and their parents and siblings, or minimize changes of placement for children in out-of-home care.”
  • “Ensure that workers in service programs have adequate compensation, professional development, and supervision in order to reduce the high level of turnover in these positions that disrupts relationships between staff and clients.”
  • “Offer services through trusted organizations and individuals in the community that have already built strong relationships with community members.”


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