Blog: Foundations for Life  

It’s entrancing to watch babies and toddlers engage with the people around them. The expressions, smiles, gurgles, gestures, and conversations are infectious, enticing you to join in.   It is this dynamic between parents and their children which is the focus of the report we published on the 11th July – Foundations for Life: What Works to Support Parent Child Interaction in the Early Years.

The first five years of a child’s life are a period of momentous change – a baby grows into a child who can walk, talk and relate to others, both family and friends. Parents and carers help lay the foundations for a child’s life chances and life skills in the ways in which they interact with the child, including the ability to build strong relationships, manage their emotions, communicate and solve problems amongst much else.

Young children thrive in environments that are predictable and responsive to their needs. Children can struggle, however, when environments are neglectful, unpredictable or overwhelming. The quality of a young child’s environment is shaped by his or her parents or carers and the wider context – for example if a parent is isolated, vulnerable or in economic hardship. In these circumstances it is vital that parents have access to additional support that is of high quality and well-matched to their needs.

As a UK What Works Centre EIF has an important role in assessing the evidence underpinning early intervention programmes. This matters because we all want our efforts and activity to have the best chance of making a difference to children’s lives. It also matters because we need to use what are always limited resources to best effect. But what works and what doesn’t is not a simple binary question. That is why EIF uses a continuum of evidence, showing how organisations build their evidence of impact in stages, learning and adapting to new evidence.

The local context matters too. Just because an early intervention programme has worked in a deprived rural area in Norfolk doesn’t mean it will necessarily work in the same way in a mixed inner London borough. The specific age and developmental stage of the child are important too. Careful implementation which takes account of local context and population needs is as important to the success of a programme as evidence that it has worked previously.

Foundations for Life: What Works to Support Parent Child Interaction in the Early Years has assessed the effectiveness of 75 early intervention programmes. This is the first time that EIF have used their own robust methods for rating the evidence and costs of early intervention programmes. We look at three inter-locking child outcomes which are the foundations for children’s life chances – attachment, behaviourial control or self-regulation, and cognitive and language development. The good news is the review shows that effective early intervention can reduce early risks to child development. The UK market place of programmes is vibrant and full of potential, with a choice of well evidenced programmes and many others based on sound science and robust implementation process that are keen to travel the journey to build their evidence.

Despite this, the market for early intervention programmes needs further development. The majority of interventions available in the UK are yet to secure the level of evidence which means they can be considered evidence based, and many are smaller voluntary and community based initiatives who struggle to find the funding to assess their impact. The role of commissioners also needs to develop, as active and informed partners in the evidence journey. They need access to the latest evidence to inform spending decisions, but also need to invest in better monitoring and testing of promising and innovative interventions, particularly where there are gaps in the evidence base.

The EIF review shows that evidence of impact is strongest for programmes that target based on early signals of risk such as child behaviour problems, insecure attachment, delayed speech development and lack of maternal sensitivity. This doesn’t mean that whole population programmes or programmes that target on the basis of demographic factors don’t work, but that that the evidence in general was not as strong for the more targeted programmes of identified in this review. Universal services remain vital to support families and children as a whole and as a mean to identify risk and target support on those who need it most.

This report is rich in content – we hope that those working with children, young people and families use it and help us build on it. It should be read alongside the findings from a recent review we have done with Professor Gordon Harold at Sussex University on the importance of the quality of the relationship between parents on how children fare now and in the future.

We are planning to run a range of regional seminars and master classes later this year with commissioners, providers and practitioners to help guide and inform the effective use of the evidence. We want to help create a culture in which it is routine to test, learn and change. But that requires greater financial support from a range of government, philanthropic, research and social investment to support evaluation.

EIF will now be working with both government and sector organisations, commissioners and service leaders to communicate and disseminate the findings from these reviews and support use of this evidence. Through informing and supporting good decision making from the centre of government to local communities we want to enhance children’s life chances, unlocking the future for this and forthcoming generations of children.

Carey Oppenheim, Chief Executive, Early Intervention Foundation

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