Strengthening Policy and Practice Through the Science of Child Development

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For years, practitioners and policymakers have contended with an unrelenting social challenge:  How can they use scientific research to protect society’s vulnerable children and families?

In a Sept. 12 talk, Charles E. Carter, Ph.D., deputy director and chief strategy officer of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, said the science behind early childhood development and the core capabilities that caretakers need to excel in life, parenting, and work must be reflected in policy and practice to create new theories of change.

The talk, “The Science of Child Development: Implications for Policy and Practice,” was part of the James R. Dumpson Memorial Lecture on Family Well-Being, co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS), Fordham School of Law, and the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York.

The event celebrated the legacy of late activist and leading social crusader James R. Dumpson, New York City’s first black commissioner. Dumpson served as GSS dean from1967 to 1974. After he died in 2012 at the age of 103, the University endowed the James R. Dumpson Chair in Child Welfare Studies to honor his lifelong commitment to helping the poor.

Like Dumpson, Carter, who spent more than 20 years working with low-income children and families, is dedicated to transforming the lives of vulnerable children.

Carter began his address at the Lincoln Center campus by recounting memories of his single mother. As a child, he marveled at her “superpowers,” which included working two jobs to support her young children and maintaining order in their household.

“What I call superpowers, scientists call core life skills,” said Carter, noting that successful caretakers are capable of planning ahead, focusing, exercising self-control, seeing things from different perspectives, and being flexible.

“These are the skills that you need in everyday life, whether it is school, work, marriage, family, or relationships.”

Scientific research shows that our brains continue to develop from birth through adulthood, Carter said.  Since it also shows that the stress of poverty and unresponsive child-parent relationships can disrupt childhood development, he believes critical interventions can help adults who are struggling with executive functioning skills, such as controlling impulsive behavior and adjusting to unexpected life demands.

“If you’re able to reduce external sources of stress, you’re able to possibly free up mental space for adults to be able to access those five core skills, and in turn be more responsive to their children,” said Carter.

He proposed reducing external excesses of stress, strengthening core life skills, and supporting responsive relationships as key principles for policy and practices. These principles are particularly important considering that current policies don’t typically take into account how a caretaker’s psychological, neurobiological, and self-regulation systems are impacted by their adversities.

What’s more, paperwork for assistance can be overwhelming and a lack of incentives for parents who work can cause further strains for families struggling to make ends meet, he said.

Because of these potential stressors, Carter encouraged practitioners to be clear, explicit, and strategic about how they work with families in order to make a meaningful impact in their lives.

“If we can be bold, we can recognize all of the superpowers of the people that we work with, and help build the skills of the systems that support the families that we most care about,” said Carter.

Charles E. Carter, Ph.D., deputy director and chief strategy officer of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, speaks at the Dumpson Memorial Lecture on Family Well-Being on Sept. 12.

Charles E. Carter, Ph.D., deputy director and chief strategy officer of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, speaks at the Dumpson Memorial Lecture on Family Well-Being. Photo by Michael Dames 

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