TMW Center Newsletter October 2021

October 01, 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.

Congrats 3Ts – Let’s Talk Dads Grads!

This month, two more cohorts of fathers completed 3Ts – Let’s Talk Dads, our group program for fathers of young children. Thanks to our wonderful partners at Southwest Human Development, who implement the program with fathers in their Phoenix community, and the generous support provided by the Steve Nash Foundation, 139 fathers (and counting) have completed the program! We’re proud to play a part in helping these dads form nurturing, secure attachments and foster healthy brain development in their little ones.

At the start of a recent session, one participant had this to say: “I’m super excited that they actually have something for dads you know? I was a part of another program and it feels like it was mainly directed towards women. I’m just excited to experience something just for dads.” We’re excited, too!

TMW Center Leadership in the Media

TMW Center Co-Directors Dana Suskind and John List have been featured in a variety of media outlets recently, discussing the Center’s latest work and sharing their perspectives on pressing issues facing children and parents.

  • In a Chicago Tribune op-ed, Dana shares findings from the latest TMW Center research on parental beliefs, and reflects on the study’s important implications for researchers and society at large.
  • Writing with Ori Heffetz in Project Syndicate, John argues that more social science experiments are urgently needed to ensure that we implement policies with a proven record of success.
  • As an invited contributor to the Milken Institute’s Power of Ideas essay series, Dana illustrates that “By Supporting Parents, We Boost Child Development.”
  • Dana was also featured in a recent episode of Freakonomics Radio investigating the causes of—and potential solutions to—the tragically high rates of child poverty in the U.S.

What We’re Reading

The Prenatal-to-3 State Policy Roadmap 2021, developed by the Prenatal to 3 Policy Impact Center at the University of Texas at Austin, identifies evidence-based investments that states can make to foster equitable opportunities for infants and toddlers. The Roadmap highlights five state-level policies and six strategies that states can adopt to help infants and toddlers get off to a healthy start and thrive.

We’ve been exploring the Roadmap for our own home state of Illinois, as well as others across the nation. We’re grateful for this impressive and robust tool that can help inform policy that is based on the science of early childhood development.