The Case for Two-Generation Approaches to Early Childhood

Stay tuned for more from our team on two-generation programs in fall 2016.  For more on other high impact opportunities in early childhood, check out our toolkit for funders, Invest in a Strong Start for Children, which includes Two-Generation Lens, a funder brief on the two-generation approach to giving. 

More and more researchers, service providers, and funders across the U.S.  are asking and answering the question: How can we improve early childhood outcomes by working with both children and their adult caregivers? We recently co-hosted a roundtable with LIFT to bring together key stakeholders in an emerging two-generation community of practice here in Philadelphia. One resource we shared with participants was Helping Parents, Helping Children, Volume 25 of The Future of Children, a joint Princeton-Brookings publication.  For donors who couldn’t attend our roundtable, we offer the following  “cheat-sheet” of main takeaways:

  • Earlier two-generation programs tended to focus primarily either on child development or workforce development for adults. Many newer programs focus more equally on both child and parent needs.  While the evidence base around child outcomes from earlier high quality child care programs (for example, Perry Preschool or Abecedarian) is strong, results for earlier workforce development programs for parents (for example, New Chance, JOBS, and Project Redirection programs) were mixed for both parents and children.  In many newer two-generation programs, adult and child interventions are more tightly coupled, with child interventions focused on high quality child care and adult interventions focused on better parenting, as well as best practices for increasing employment, education and income.
  • Caregivers can help counter the harmful effects of long-term stress for children. New research into brain development documents the detrimental effects of long-term environmental, or “toxic” stress on children.  Research also underscores the role of caregivers both as potential sources of stress but also – when relationships are strong – as powerful buffers against it.
  • There are intergenerational payoffs to boosting parent’s education. Although it has long been known that there is a strong correlation between parental and children’s education levels and other outcomes, there is now also some evidence of a causal relationship.  In other words, improving parent education can improve child outcomes.
  • Parent and child health are closely tied, due to both genetics and environment. Environmental and behavioral risk factors for poor health disproportionately affect poor families.  While a handful of programs address parent and child health simultaneously (most widely, prenatal programs) most don’t. While a two-generation approach to care makes sense, the approach in health faces systemic barriers due to financing from different sources, as well as doctor specialization in pediatric versus adult care.
  • Boosting parental income – independent of any other assistance – can improve child outcomes. Experiments with tax and welfare policies suggest that a relatively modest boost in income – e.g., $3,000 annually in one study – may be associated with a small gain in achievement scores.  Other experiments in increasing income have resulted in improvements in  children’s educational attainment and behavior.  Impact varies by age both within and across studies, and a key question remains regarding when might be the optimal time for income increases.
  • The effects of parental employment depend on job quality, flexibility, and the availability of quality childcare.  While parental employment provides a role model for children and serves to increase family income, the quality of a parent’s job matters.  Low skill, low pay jobs with unpredictable hours and few benefits can contribute to, rather than alleviate stress, which can reverberate negatively on children.  This is particularly true if the parent cannot access high quality childcare.
  • Building family assets such as college savings accounts or home mortgage down payments can contribute to positive outcomes for children. Even if savings are small, evidence shows both that poor people can save and that savings and other assets, such as home ownership, are associated with improved child outcomes.  The most promising programs are opened automatically (e., opt out, rather than opt in), start early in life, and come with an initial deposit as an incentive.