Public Policy and Resilience

How we can change our policies to help disadvantaged kids cope and thrive

By Bari Walsh, on March 23, 2015 3:04 PM
Public Policy and Resilience: How we can change our policies to help disadvantaged kids cope and thrive #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

Resilience — it’s not about grit; it’s about relationships.

That’s one of the takeaways of a new report issued by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, which seeks to unite the science of early childhood development with the policies we devise to support disadvantaged kids.

Despite good intentions, too many of our efforts to help children overcome adversity are failing to prioritize the power of a strong adult relationship, as well as the other key building blocks of resilience, the report maintains. And by mischaracterizing the battle that disadvantaged kids face as one of individual motivation or grit, policies send a signal that kids themselves are at fault if they fail to thrive.

“There is no magical ‘resilience gene,’” says Jack Shonkoff, chair of the council and director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard. “When we think that kids just need willpower to overcome adversity, we miss opportunities to provide the relationships and build the skills that can actually strengthen resilience.”

Missing the Mark

The report outlines several examples of policies that miss the mark when it comes to building capacity for resilience:

  • When child-welfare policies focus solely on removing a child from an unsafe environment, they miss the opportunity to restore the relationships and build the ca­pacities necessary for resilience.
  • When poverty-reduction policies require parents to work without assuring access to affordable childcare, they miss the opportuni­ty to promote both adult economic self-sufficien­cy and developmentally supportive experiences for children.
  • When programs use “character education” models in contexts for which they were not de­signed (and to which they won’t coherently transfer), they miss the power of creating the support­ive environments that build skills that can be used in many contexts.

Toward Better Policy

The report also offers new approaches that can build the foundations of resilience:

  • Use scientific knowledge to help identify and support children whose needs are not being addressed adequately by existing services.
  • Enhance “serve and return” interactions between babies living in disadvantaged environments and adult caregivers, to strengthen the building blocks of resilience.
  • Target the development of specific skills needed for adaptive coping, sound decision-making, and effective self-regulation in children and adults.
  • Develop new frameworks for integrating policies and programs that collectively re­duce stress on families across sectors. These could include subsidized parental leave policies, access to affordable and high-quality early care and ed­ucation, community recreation activities, and home-visiting programs that coach new parents on how to interact positively with their children.
  • Maximize the effectiveness of all early childhood policies and programs by fo­cusing on the full range of factors that build resilience:
    • Creating supportive adult-child relationships;
    • Building a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control;
    • Providing opportunities to strengthen adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities;
    • Mobilizing sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions.

Additional Resources

  • Read Part I of our exploration of resilience, about the scientific basis of resilience (and why it flourishes or weakens).

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Faculty in this article

Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D.

As director of the Center on the Developing Child, Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., is using the science of early childhood development to drive innovation in policy and practice, with the goal of transforming life outcomes for disadvantaged children and reducing the consequences of early adversity.