October 2021

New TMW Center Research Published in Nature Communications

A rich body of research demonstrates that healthy brain development in children relies on nurturing interactions with adults—and that the neural connections formed in the first three years of life lay the foundation for life-long learning. But little research has been done to quantify parents’ awareness or understanding of that science.

TMW Center’s John List, Julie Pernaudet, and Dana Suskind recently conducted a series of field experiments designed to help fill the gap. They found that parental beliefs about child development are predictive of a parent’s level of facilitative engagement with their child; that those beliefs are malleable; and that—with the appropriate level of intervention—changes in those beliefs can result in lasting increases in parental investments and improvements in child outcomes.

These results were published on October 1, 2021, in Nature Communications. The full article is available online and a press release summarizing the findings can be read here.

Reflections from Dr. Dana Suskind

As we all know, parents and caregivers play an incredibly powerful role in impacting early brain development. For that (very good!) reason, many of us concerned with children’s well-being have worked to create behavioral interventions and resources that help parents interact in a way that optimizes development.

And yet, little research has been done to understand, number one, what parents know or believe in the first place, and, number two, whether or not changing those beliefs maps onto changes in child input and child outcomes.

So, colleagues and I conducted a series of field experiments to examine those questions.

I am encouraged and excited by our findings, published recently in Nature Communications. Specifically, we find that parental beliefs about child development are malleable and—with the appropriate level of intervention—changes in those beliefs can result in lasting increases in parental investments and improvements in child outcomes.

The experiments themselves are detailed in the paper, but I’d like to take a moment here to reflect on their implications, and what I consider to be this study’s most important revelation: confirmation that our society has failed to provide the support parents and families need during children’s incredibly formative early years.

So often, we view scientific advancements through a “bench to bedside” lens, seeking to put new scientific knowledge into action on the individual level. I understand this instinct, and celebrate attempts to make scientific findings available to all. But, I believe firmly that we must also consider how research can be applied to influence systems rather than individuals.

Our research illustrates the powerful effect of shifting parents’ knowledge and beliefs about brain development. I hope it can also play a small role in shifting society’s belief about the urgent, critical need to do more to support parents. Our paper offers promising examples of at least one way to start.