Helping More Children, Parents Get The ‘Basics’ (And Beyond): More From The ICS Research Symposium

How can educators, health leaders and communities help more parents learn to work with their children to prepare them to be healthy, and for school and life?

That was a key question on Day 2 of ICS’s fourth annual Early Childhood Research Symposium, held in Charlotte, N.C., at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s City Center Campus.

Ronald Ferguson Keynote Address
Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson gives the closing keynote address at the ICS research symposium.

Ronald Ferguson, an economist and fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, was the day’s keynote speaker. He spoke of the “latent potential” found in many young children whose parents struggle to provide them with the early skills necessary for brain development.

Too often, communities of race and class find themselves “entangled in pluralistic ignorance about each other’s real values,” said Ferguson, who noted the recent protests over a police-involved shooting right there in Charlotte. “Stereotypes lead to racialized identity scripts which affect teaching and learning, and power and resource inequities.”

 To face these challenges, Ferguson discussed how he’s helped to start Boston Basics, a program that outlines the relatively simple but critical steps families should take to help their small children learn and thrive. (Check out The program, which may expand to other cities, has brought low-income parents into childcare centers and preschools to learn better tactics for helping their small children learn and explore. Such activities could help to narrow huge differences in cognitive ability found by the age 2 among low-income and minority children.

Why do cognitive gaps appear so early? Ferguson pointed to research showing that children in low-income families often have heard millions fewer words than their peers by age 3. Other research shows that families enduring economic stress may give their children only half as much verbal and physical encouragement as better-off parents, he said. This affects the ratio of how many times struggling parents praise, reprimand, warn and scold their children.

This is why we need to “saturate the community with the basics” of child development, said Ferguson, who co-chairs and directs the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard. His presentation at the ICS conference was provided in partnership with the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.

Other sessions on the symposium’s final day made apparent that new work and innovation is stirring across the country to help young children.

ICS Session
Rural education advocates Vichi Jagannathan, standing at left, and Seth Saeugling, are introduced by ICS’s Keller Anne Ruble, standing at right. ICS consultant Grady Powell looks on, seated at left.

Yale graduate student Vichi Jagannathan and rural education advocate Seth Saeugling, who both taught in rural northeastern North Carolina for Teach for America, presented their project to return to that region and use human-centered design to expand and improve early childhood programs—helping the community decide for itself which challenges need to be addressed and how. The two young advocates plan to begin by spending several months interviewing families and childcare center staffs in Northampton and Warren counties about the barriers to having more quality childcare programs. More childcare will mean improving early education and health of young children, allowing more parents an opportunity to work, and providing more local jobs, the advocates said. They plan to set up a pilot program and then expand it across the area—and possibly elsewhere.

Aaron Bean of the company Asemio, based in Tulsa, Okla., drew a large crowd to his session on how states, local governments and other entities need much more sophisticated and better-planned data systems to monitor early childhood outcomes and produce better research on strategies that work—and which ones don’t.  “We need new infrastructures to carry out these new innovations,” he said. More here:

ICS’s own Associate Director for Policy Research Megan Carolan presented on the growth in community-based literacy interventions, highlighting initiatives that work with families to develop early literacy where families already are. These interventions include Reach Out and Read, a program that trains physicians to “prescribe” books and early literacy tips for children and their parents; the ongoing role of libraries; and novel outreach locations such as laundromats and barber shops. The federal government has been funding such interventions in underserved communities through the Innovative Approaches to Literacy grant program.

Megan Carolan leads a discussion
ICS’s Megan Carolan leads a discussion on new approaches to developing young children’s early literacy skills.

Dee Stegelin, a professor of early childhood education at Clemson University and member of ICS’s Research Committee, and Amaris Tejada, a Ph.D. student at Clemson, highlighted early findings on family engagement in 4K classrooms in rural Jasper County, S.C. They highlighted barriers that keep families from full engagement and strategies to empower parents in the classroom. Attendees eagerly shared their own experiences in the classroom and what works for them. (Check out this recent Policy Matters program featuring Stegelin and ICS’s Joe Waters:

LAUP’s Alex Zepeda presented on the organization’s outreach for improving young children’s nutrition and physical activity across Los Angeles County. More here:

In all, it was another information-packed day of the conference. Starting next year, the symposium will be combined with ICS’s Pay for Success early childhood conference into a larger “ideas festival” on early childhood. The new event will bring together experts and leaders from fields beyond just early childhood education and health—including writers and artists, technology innovators, and others. The event will be called “SmallTalks” and is planned for fall 2017 in Washington, D.C.


-Alan Richard

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