Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Resource: Educating Policy Makers Influences Policy

While it should come as no surprise that educating policy makers about early childhood development results in more informed policy, it hasn't always been recognized by advocates that "telling ain't teaching."

Prevention Action (itself an interesting blog in the UK) reports on an important article in the February issue of Child Development by Jack Shonkoff and Susan Nall Bales: ‘Science does not speak for itself: Translating child development research for the public and its policy makersLink to PDF

It touches upon a couple of the paradoxes of sustainable advocacy: that every stage of parenthood is transient, and thus one important part of the constituency for early childhood programs (parents) are not only learning their new role as they go, but constantly going onwards to the challenges of the next stage of development, and that sustained advocacy therefore often devolves to institutional stakeholders, and those institutions require resources to sustain themselves.
Stated simply, the aim of this exercise is to communicate complex scientific principles simply but accurately, using techniques of investigation from the cognitive and social sciences in order to achieve that objective.

The lessons of this initiative so far are that child development researchers can influence the thinking and actions of the target group – comprising the professionals, policy makers, elected officials and interested parties mentioned earlier - if they focus on teaching about science and less on preaching about which policies and services should be supported. The authority of the ‘core story’ in terms of its scientific underpinning is essential for this. Second, the most effective dissemination occurs when scientists present their ideas directly to the target audiences but do so with advice and support from communication experts.

The benefit of this approach is that sound scientific knowledge is presented without being dumbed down and in a way that policy makers can understand, apply and pass on to colleagues.
The study offers some interesting lessons to those seeking to influence policy.
So what is special about this model? First, its intention is to convey a body of knowledge, in this case the theory of child brain development. Many disseminations exercise focus on one study and stop at summarising the findings and drawing out policy and practice implications. This exercise has a much wider educational brief affecting a whole way of thinking about the nature, cause and consequences of a social problem and the relevance of a whole area of child development to it.

Secondly, it seeks to present extremely complex theories and concepts in a new way without being selective or over-simplifying. The core story is a robust summary of current knowledge and not a list of findings presented as open to different interpretations.

Thirdly, the consultation and dissemination processes involve a lot of repetition as testing reveals failures, but it is ultimately cumulative as understanding grows.

Fourth, the need to link abstract ideas with policy and practice must always be in the mind of those seeking to explain.

The core story of brain development:

1. Child development is a foundation for community development and economic development, as capable children become the foundation of a prosperous and sustainable society.

2. Brain architecture is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. As it emerges, the quality of that architecture establishes either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all the capabilities and behaviour that follow.

3. Skill begets skill as brains are built in a hierarchical fashion, from the bottom up. Increasingly complex circuits and skills build on simpler circuits and skills over time.

4. The interaction of genes and experience shapes the circuitry of the developing brain. Young children serve up frequent invitations to engage with adults, who are either responsive or unresponsive to their needs. This ‘serve and return’ process (what developmental researchers call contingent reciprocity) is fundamental to the wiring of the brain, especially in the early years.

5. Cognitive, emotional and social capabilities are inextricably intertwined and learning, behaviour, and both physical and mental health are highly interrelated over the life course. You cannot address one domain without affecting the others.

6. Although manageable levels of stress are normative and growth promoting toxic stress in the early years (e.g. from severe poverty, serious parental mental health impairment, such as maternal depression, child maltreatment and/or family violence) can damage developing brain architecture and lead to problems in learning and behaviour, as well as increased susceptibility to physical and metal illness.

7. Brain plasticity and the ability to change behaviour decrease over time. Consequently, getting it right early leads to better outcomes and is less costly, to society and to individuals, than trying to fix it later. We can pay now or we will pay more later for society’s failure to promote healthy development in the earliest years of life.

8. Effectiveness factors make the difference between early childhood intervention programmes that work and those that do not work to support children’s healthy development. These factors can be measured and can inform wise investments in effective policies and programmes.
Link to Prevention Action postResource: Jack P Shonkoff and Susan Nall Bales, ‘Science does not speak for itself: Translating child development research for the public and its policy makers’, Child Development, 82:1, February 2011, pp. 17-32 Link

Resource: Shonkoff, Investment in Early Childhood Education Lays The Foundation of a Prosperous Society, Early Childhood Encyclopedia (2009) Link

Resource: Child Development Homepage Link

Resource: Society for Research in Child Development Link
The Society is a multidisciplinary, not-for-profit, professional association with a membership of approximately 5,500 researchers, practitioners, and human development professionals from over 50 countries.

The purposes of the Society are to promote multidisciplinary research in the field of human development, to foster the exchange of information among scientists and other professionals of various disciplines, and to encourage applications of research findings. Our goals are pursued through a variety of programs with the cooperation and service of our governing council, standing committees, and members.

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