Investing in Early Childhood

By Rhett Mabry, Duke Endowment

We believe a rich, nurturing and supportive childhood experience can propel a child to a successful adult life.

We also believe that when the public is asked to spend millions on early childhood programs, it’s not unreasonable for citizens and policymakers to demand strong, reliable data showing that such early investments produce good outcomes later in life.

That has been a bit problematic. Even as investments in early childhood increase, skeptics still wonder if it’s really worth it. They question if early childhood interventions can truly be pinpointed as difference-makers in the life outcomes of an adult. They want more proof.

Fortunately, modern brain science is supplying it. New discoveries and techniques in neurobiology are leaving far less room for doubt about the value of intervening early. Thanks to cutting-edge imaging technology, we can see how the brain works in real time. We now know that constant, unrelenting negative experiences – toxic stress – can trigger excessive amounts of hormones like cortisol, disrupting developing brain circuits and increasing the risk for academic challenges, alcoholism, depression and even heart disease. Conversely, we know that stable, nurturing environments stimulate the development of neural connections critical to the kind of strong executive functioning needed for learning and problem-solving.

Biological evidence is increasingly demonstrating that we are dealing with simple, straightforward cause and effect. Chaotic childhood experiences damage brain development in young children. By mitigating or preventing such experiences, we pave the way for better adult outcomes.

Jack Shonkoff, head of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, said as much during a 2014 speech at Duke University. “Right before our eyes is an exploding revolution in biology,” he said. “We should use that science to set a higher bar.”

That’s exactly what the Endowment aims to do. We are exploring a new strategic emphasis on early childhood issues, focusing on children ages 0 to 8.

Initially, the emphasis will be seen in special initiatives, such as our work with Blue Meridian Partners – a collaborative effort among multiple funders seeking to expand evidence-based programs serving economically disadvantaged children. We will also be expanding early childhood grantmaking in our existing program areas, and plan to work with specific communities that are targeting services for children ages 0 to 8.

While the Endowment’s four program areas already make early childhood grants, we often do so independently of each other, without optimal coordination. Now, we’ll work systematically and collaboratively across the Endowment to incorporate early childhood into our grantmaking.

This won’t be the first tactical adjustment we’ve made to keep pace with a changing world. When he created this organization back in 1924, James B. Duke charged the Endowment with strengthening communities and improving life in the Carolinas. To do that, we’ve had to adapt as the Carolinas changed.

For instance, Mr. Duke’s Indenture of Trust initially led the Endowment to give direct support to orphans and half-orphans, but in modern times the welfare of such children is more commonly guided by the foster care system. As a result, we devote more money toward strengthening families and to encourage reform in the child welfare system.

Mr. Duke’s Indenture directed us to help rural Methodist churches as they support their communities. But as population patterns have shifted, we’ve expanded and modernized our definition of rural.

These are just two examples of the kind of thoughtful, results-oriented change the Endowment’s leaders have pursued over the years. We plan to implement this new strategic focus with the same mind-set, seeking evolutionary, not revolutionary, change. The challenges of our fast-moving society require it.

The healthcare systems we support are strained, the schools and child welfare systems we assist are struggling, and the rural churches we help are fighting for relevance in an increasingly secularized, urbanized landscape.

Our new strategic emphasis won’t make these problems vanish overnight, but it will help us fight them in a more coordinated, systematic fashion. Clearly, severe family distress feeds intergenerational poverty and a host of other deep-seated problems. Our hope is that by investing in young children and their families, we will get ahead of problems before they escalate.

The brain science research offers compelling proof that early childhood interventions can be the powerful lever we need to maximize our impact.

I’d encourage you to read it for yourself. You’ll find some of Shonkoff’s research here. You can also find research from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman on the long-term benefits of early childhood programs here. And you can find a position paper on brain research from the Southern Early Childhood Association here.

We strongly believe that this emphasis will help us fulfill Mr. Duke’s vision for a better life in North Carolina and South Carolina. We welcome your feedback as we explore this critically important strategic path.

Author: Duane Childers

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