Report: Policymakers Should Turn Focus to Core Life Skills

Today we continue our look at the ways science that drives early childhood learning can also help drive our public policy.

We’re highlighting the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child report “Three Principles to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families.”

The authors highlight three design principles and outline ways to apply each principle to policy.

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.

Principle 2: Strengthen core life skills

The authors explain the concept of core life skills: “We all need a set of essential skills to manage life, work, and relationships successfully. These core capabilities support our ability to focus, plan for and achieve goals, adapt to changing situations, and resist impulsive behaviors. No one is born with these skills; they are developed over time through coaching and practice. Policies that help children and adults strengthen their core life skills are essential not only for their success as students and workers, but also as parents, when they can pass along the same capabilities to the next generation.”

Of course, this building of executive function is a key part of early childhood development.

As the authors note: “In the first three years of life, we start learning to use these core capabilities in basic ways—like focusing attention, responding to limit-setting, and following simple rules. Between ages 3 and 5, we make huge gains in using these skills as we practice them more and more, learn to adjust flexibly to different rules for different contexts, and resist impulsive behaviors.”

The authors offer examples of how to apply this design principle to policy:

  • “In contracting for service programs, prioritize those that explicitly focus on self-regulation and executive function skills and incorporate opportunities for program participants to practice these skills.”
  • “Reduce regulatory barriers and increase incentives for two-generation programs to actively build the core skills of children and the adults they depend on.”
  • “Develop education and early learning policies that recognize the importance of executive function and self-regulation as an important strand in the ‘braided rope’ of skills children need to succeed academically.”

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