Birth to Age Three: Healthy Children, Supported Parents

Boston Basics and Families First partner to help families support early brain development

“Cognitive skill gaps between children from different socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds are stark by their second birthday. That gets your attention,” says Boston Basics founder, Ron Ferguson, PhD, an expert on closing the achievement gap. From birth to age three, children’s brains develop in dramatic ways, and skill gaps apparent by age two can have a profound impact on school readiness. Yet, as Families First executive director Sue Covitz notes, “This idea of starting right from the beginning, which seems like so obvious a place to start, for some reason has been overlooked.”

Ferguson and his team distilled the research into five evidence-based parenting and caregiving principles that support the early brain development of children. These “Basics” are 1) maximize love, manage stress; 2) talk, sing, and point; 3) count, group, and compare; 4) explore through movement and play; 5) and read and discuss stories. The intent is to braid the Basics into daily interactions with young children. The three-pronged strategy for dissemination of the Basics is to share the messages through mass media (billboards, social media and print materials), saturate a few neighborhoods at a time through a range of institutions, and work with sectors that parents and families trust—like healthcare, churches and childcare—to integrate the Basics into their routine operations. This strategy is intended to produce what Ferguson calls “socioecological saturation,” where parents hear about the Basics from every direction.

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Courtesy of Boston Basics.

Where Boston Basics seeks breadth, Families First goes deep. Its mission is to strengthen parent-child relationships to produce better outcomes for children. Families First developed and refined their 12-week Power of Parenting education program — including a version for parents of children from birth to age three—to improve parenting skills, develop social connections and build parent leadership capacity. Families First’s experienced Parenting Educators deliver the program, which is hosted by community partner organizations.

Neighborhood saturation

Boston Basics and Families First teamed up 18 months ago to pilot a version of Power of Parenting embedded with the Basics in East Boston. It went so well that the duo applied for and received funding from Boston Children’s Collaboration for Community Health to take the model to other neighborhoods. This funding will support their joint work with four sets of community health centers and childcare centers per year. These sites will be selected with the help of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers and Head Start. Boston Basics will train staff from participating sites on how to weave the Basics into interactions with most of the parents and caregivers they serve. Some of these parents and caregivers will then have a chance to participate in the Power of Parenting program for a more in-depth experience. With funding from the Collaboration for Community Health, both organizations hope to refine their program models and look forward to building new partnerships and reaching more parents.

Impact and value

Measuring impact is top of mind for Boston Basics and Families First. The plan is to assess parents’ self-reported changes in beliefs and behaviors, and changes in the routines and practices of the professionals working at participating organizations. Focus groups will assess differences in outcomes between participants in the Power of Parenting embedded with the Basics and participants in the regular program.

“Parents are grateful for this information. We know that using the Basics at home has resulted in children watching less TV, engaging in more imaginary play, and wanting to discuss stories more. Parents are amazed by the difference in their kids,” explains Ferguson. Covitz adds that “Power of Parenting participants are more confident as parents. They report incredible changes in their skills and resilience – and they enjoy the time they spend with their children more.”

This work may seem simple, but it isn’t always straightforward or easy for parents to implement in daily life. That is why these strategies are important reminders and “can be game-changers in kids starting school ready to learn. Elevating the voice of parents in early childhood is critical, and I hope this is another platform to help do that. We are proud to be collaborating on this work during such an exciting time,” says Covitz.