New solutions for early years care
The Social Research Unit at Dartington has been selected to provide support and development services to the Fulfulling Lives: A Better Start investment. Here, co-director Louise Morpeth explains why it is so important for communities to join professionals and policymakers in generating solutions that enhance the delivery of early years care.
Our understanding of how babies and young children develop is growing at a rapid rate thanks to breakthroughs in research on genes and brain development. We know, for example, that there are sensitive developmental periods when certain experiences will affect the architecture and functioning of the brain. These changes will affect how children respond to stress, which will in turn have ramifications for the rest of a young person’s life.
This new knowledge must shape policy and the design and implementation of services, and may well challenge us as parents, as citizens and as tax payers, to change what we do for and with our children.
The finding that babies were more susceptible to sudden infant death syndrome if they slept on their fronts has led to all new parents being told ‘Back to sleep’, which is now commonly accepted practice. This is a simple example of science changing the behaviour of parents and in turn potentially saving lives every year.
Unfortunately the complex findings coming from the science are not all as easy to turn into actions and recommendations as the cot death example. The science doesn’t always tell us what we need to do but it does help us understand where and when we might focus our efforts.
It opens the door for innovation not only for the professionals and the policy makers, but for everyone with an interest in the future of our children.
Communities have an important role to play in generating new solutions, as well as ensuring that solutions will be welcomed, be pragmatic and will stand the greatest chance of adoption.
We know from research in the US that the process of meaningfully involving communities in the design and delivery of supports and services for children can in itself increase the effect of those services.
So it follows that communities should come round the table with professionals and the people who hold the purse strings to understand what the science is saying and help shape new ways of helping families and communities.
Just giving communities a seat at the table is not sufficient. Authentic engagement has to counter the unequal distribution of the power in the room. One way of leveling the playing field is to give both the community and the professionals the same language to understand, discuss and apply the emerging science to new solutions.
In a collaboration with The Centre on the Developing Child in the US, The FrameWorks Institute has experimented with this idea. They took complex findings from brain development research and found and tested metaphors and explanations that were meaningful to members of the public.
In one experiment they found they were able to influence voting by legislators simply by helping them understand the importance of child development with this more accessible type of language. Work of this kind combined with meaningful community engagement in decision-making could help get the science into the hands of the people who can really make a difference.
A short accessible summary of the evidence is summarised in the ‘Science within’ available at this link: http://betterstart.dartington.org.uk/resources/evidence-reviews/science-within.
For more information about the effect of community involvement in improved outcomes see: Isaac C. Rhew, Eric C. Brown, J. David Hawkins, and John S. Briney. Sustained Effects of the Communities That Care System on Prevention Service System Transformation. American Journal of Public Health: March 2013, Vol. 103, No. 3, pp. 529-535. (http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2011.300567)
Louise Morpeth is co-director, the Social Research Unit at Dartington
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