Reframing newsletter

Expert Reframes Early Childhood Development

November 14, 2019

We love seeing reframing used in different contexts and venues. So we were delighted to read a September 26, 2019 Brookings Institution/Brown Center Chalkboard article by Dr. Dana Suskind, “What cutting-edge neuroscience tells us about early childhood development,” that uses framing techniques to broaden the conversation about research on language and brain development. Suskind is the Founder and Director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health that “aspires to create a population-level shift in the knowledge and behavior of parents and caregivers to optimize the foundational brain development in children, birth to five years of age, particularly those born into poverty.”

Headshot of Dana Suskind

Dr. Suskind is Professor of Surgery, The University of Chicago; Director, The Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program; and Founder and Director, The TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health

In her post, Suskind expands on the concept of the “word gap” — a 1995 finding that children in lower income households hear 30 million fewer words by age four than their wealthier peers — to encompass “a wealth of evidence that suggests the single most important component to brain development is the relationship between a baby and her caretaker, with parent language at the heart of that relationship.” To reframe the conversation beyond the word gap by incorporating an understanding of parental interaction, Suskind relies on some Building Well-Being Narrative and other framing strategies, such as:

  • The Value of Human Potential to relate the issue’s significance, so readers are primed to understand what’s at stake:
    • “Parent language, understood this way [with conversational turns], has been found to influence an individual’s ability to reach their fullest potential in math, spatial reasoning, and literacy, their ability to regulate their behavior, their reaction to stress, their perseverance, and even their moral fiber.”
  • The Construction Metaphor to compare a complex issue with a commonplace and understandable subject, so readers have a better grasp of early childhood development
    • “While genetics supply our basic blueprints, science strongly indicates that achieving the potential included in the blueprint, no matter how incredible, is largely determined by a child’s earliest language environment. No one would question that the architectural plans you have for your dream home are pretty meaningless without an excellent contract team or quality materials.”
    • “All parents and adults in our society, then, must understand that a word is not simply a word; it is a building block for a child’s brain.”
    • “We need policies that afford parents equal opportunity to put that knowledge in action—policies that support parents in their most important role as the key architects of their children’s brains. Without social policies in place to mitigate and address the causes of poverty, to reduce structural inequality, to empower families, we will fail to harness the incredible power of what we know to be true about building healthy brains and healthy children.”
  • Serve-and-Return to explain how parent-child interaction is necessary to brain development, so readers can envision the interplay:
    • “The linguistic serve-and-return in the baby-caretaker relationship is a key factor in learning.”

We recently spoke with Dr. Suskind who noted that “Explaining ‘the why’ is fundamental to everything we do.” She relayed settling on potential and the construction metaphor as effective ways to communicate about language, caretaker interaction and brain development by talking with, and considering feedback from, families in her program. After honing the language over time, she finds the messages are “sticky,” compelling and actionable because they strike a balance in explaining a complex issue without 1) minimizing its significance with over simplifications, or 2) overwhelming audiences with complicated jargon. Another advantage of the communications is they speak to all program stakeholders: parents, providers, the general public, funders and policymakers. Dr. Suskind shared that this explanatory approach to a complicated topic, which she’ll continue to shape over time, resonates with these audiences. Undoubtedly, the reasonable tone and solutions-oriented approach also contribute to the messages’ impact. We encourage you to read Dr. Suskind’s article and consider how similar strategies can strengthen your priority communications.

SPOTLIGHT: FrameWorks Offers Tips for Prevention Support

In “Six Ways to Boost Public Support for Prevention-Based Policy” Nat Kendall-Taylor and Nicky Hawkins of the FrameWorks Institute identify “unconscious cognitive responses” and “widely shared cultural beliefs” that undermine public support for policies that prevent social problems. The July 31, 2019 article in Stanford Social Innovation Review provides guidance to overcome obstacles such as “normalcy bias,” or the assumption that conditions will remain the same and fatalism, or the misconception that challenges are too big, complex and entrenched to solve.