Shaping communications about early child development

FrameWorks has a long history of translating the complex science of early child development in a way that has shaped both policy and practice around the world.

In the UK, our work with partners such as the NSPCC, Blackpool Better Start, and The Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood is changing how people think about child development and building the understanding that the early years matter.

What we found

FrameWorks has the world’s largest body of framing research on how people think about childhood and adolescence, gathered in more than 10 countries over the last 20 years.

We’ve found that certain unproductive beliefs can dominate how people reason about child development in the UK, such as:

  • People tend to think of development as an automatic process; this underestimates the importance of stable, caring relationships and stimulating environments in shaping development.
  • There is a tendency to think that children develop in a ‘family bubble’ – which underestimates the roles of other people in supporting that development.
  • And we don’t tend to recognise the harmful effects of early adversity, falling back on the idea that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.

But we’ve also found more productive ways of thinking that we’ve been able to build on. People do recognise that early experiences get carried forward, that children are our collective responsibility, and that the environments we grow up in matter.

What we did

Our research has identified several metaphors which explain how child development works, and which help to show the role we can all play in supporting babies and very young children. Ideas like ‘brain architecture’ and ‘serve and return’ are now widely used by practitioners and advocates alike to describe how brains are built over time and how interaction with parents and other caregivers actively shapes development.

We also found that invoking our shared value of collective responsibility to help children thrive helps people see early childhood as an issue for collective concern and action – about which something can and must be done.

Blackpool Better Start is just one example of where framing has helped parents, caregivers and service providers to understand the critical role that caring, stimulating early experiences play in healthy child development. We delivered advice and training to the partnership on framing early child development and introduced a common language between professionals and communities to understand brain science.

As well as embedding the framing in their core messaging, our first partner in the UK – the NSPCC – has applied the insights to their successful Look, Say, Sing, Play campaign and resources. The campaign provides tips to strengthen parent-infant relationships and help build babies’ brains and bodies, and continues to reach thousands of parents and carers every year.

The impact

This new way of talking about child development is at the heart of multiple campaigns and communications:

  • Our work helped to shape Blackpool Better Start’s strategy, and by embedding this language into their work, they aim to improve policy and practice for generations to come.
  • The NSPCC has woven language such as ‘Childhood shapes who we become’ into their brand messaging.
  • Over 77,500 parents have signed up to receive the NSPCC’s Look, Say, Sing, Play tips, and an evaluation found that parents reported the materials helped them to change how they interacted with their baby.
  • NSPCC Learning’s materials to help professionals use metaphors to explain child development.

We worked with FrameWorks to frame and share key messages across the whole of our workforce and our local communities. Embedding the language of ‘serve and return’ and ‘building brains’, for example, into local services and communities has enabled families to understand more about their own experiences. In turn, they now use this knowledge to shape their own parenting style and, crucially, this helps them to parent with confidence.

Clare Law Director, Centre for Early Child Development

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