The Science Behind the Skills Parents Need Most

One of the most powerful ways to improve the lives of children facing adversity is to focus on the adults who care for them. We know from previous research how important caring, responsive relationships and stable environments are for children.

Even the presence of just one loving, responsive caregiver—whether it be a parent, grandparent, daycare provider, or teacher—can buffer a child from the effects of toxic stress.

But if the adults in a child’s life also grew up in adversity and experienced the stresses of poverty, neglect, domestic abuse, poor nutrition, or homelessness (or if they are experiencing those things now), their ability to manage life’s challenges and to provide a stable, nurturing environment for children may be hindered.

It seems like a catch-22: the very skills that we need to weather adversity successfully are the ones that are weakened by it.

Given what we know about how the brain develops in the earliest years of life, can we still build and strengthen these skills in adulthood? The answer, fortunately, is yes. Although experiences have the greatest impact when the brain is still developing in early childhood, the adult brain remains sensitive to experiences and can build the complex networks required for life skills like planning, focus, self-control, awareness, and flexibility. (To scientists, these capabilities fall under the umbrella of executive function and self-regulation.) Although there is some age-related decline, these capabilities—and the brain regions that support them—are malleable, and can strengthen with practice.

In other words, it’s never too late, but it’s always better to build on a solid foundation.

The Center on the Developing Child’s newest report, Building Core Capabilities for Life, explores the science behind the skills adults need to succeed in parenting and in the workplace, answering questions such as: How do these capabilities develop? How do they work together? What hijacks our ability to use these core capabilities?

Understanding what the “core capabilities” are and how they work is a crucial first step—but where do we go from here? What can we do to help adults build up or restore their core capabilities? The new report presents two approaches.

The first focuses on environment—the places, systems, and programs in which adults live, work, and access services. Too often, the programs that are intended to help adults have arbitrary and confusing application requirements or use informational materials that are not designed with the clients in mind. All of this can inadvertently increase the level of stress that adults experience, further overburdening their ability to manage life’s tasks and reducing the likelihood that they will access needed services. Drawing on an understanding of what can compromise adults’ core capabilities, the Center on the Developing Child offers several specific and practical recommendations for simplifying and changing policies, programs, and services to make them more supportive of adults facing adversity.

The second approach presented in the report focuses on the individual—training methods and strategies for helping adults to build up and practice their core capabilities. These include teaching strategies for reassessing stressful situations, recognizing and interrupting automatic responses to stress, and practicing core capabilities in real-life scenarios.

To read the full details of the recommended environmental and individual approaches, download the report from the Center on the Developing Child’s website.

If we can systematically provide opportunities for adults to build the core skills that are needed to be productive participants in the workforce and to provide stable, responsive environments for the children in their care, the outcomes for our children—and our society—could be dramatic. Our economy will be stronger, and the next generation of citizens, workers, and parents will thrive. And, having a better understanding of the science behind our core capabilities and the toll that adversity and poverty can have on them is the key to providing those opportunities in the most effective and empowering way.

-Kristen Holmstrand
Senior Communications Manager
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

(April 4, 2016)