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EIF report

Foundations for Life: What works to support parent-child interaction in the early years?

Foundations for Life is a groundbreaking assessment of 75 early intervention programmes aimed at improving child outcomes through positive parent–child interactions in the early years.

Full report





This new report has assessed programmes available to UK commissioners, rather than considering programmes from around the world. This is the first time that EIF has used its own robust methods for rating the evidence and costs of early intervention programmes.

The programmes included in this assessment were identified through systematic methods as part of the Best Start at Home review published in 2015. This included a range of programmes that supported the non-physical development of children between conception and age 5 through direct engagement with the parent. In Foundations for Life, the evidence for the programmes has been reviewed and rated by EIF and external experts, as well as being scrutinised by the EIF evidence panel of leading academics in the field of early intervention.

Parent–child interactions in the early years matter. Parents and caregivers lay the foundations for children’s life skills, including the ability to build productive relationships, emotional regulation, communication and problem-solving. Some parents, however, struggle to provide their child with a sufficiently nurturing environment or need some help along the way, and so benefit from high-quality support that is matched to their situation.

The report shows that there are a number of early signals of risk to children’s development, such as child behaviour problems, insecure attachment, delayed development of speech and language, and a lack of maternal sensitivity, which can be effectively responded to by available, well-evidenced programmes or for which new programmes are under development.

Key findings

  • The report found that although the overall evidence base for programmes available in the UK is not yet mature, there is a range of well evidenced and promising interventions that, if carefully commissioned to ensure they fit with local need and context, are likely to be effective in tackling problems identified in the early years.
  • The evidence is strongest for programmes that target based on early signals of risk, such as child behaviour problems, insecure attachment, delayed development of speech and lack of maternal sensitivity, although other types of programmes have also been found effective.
  • 17 programmes are well-evidenced, and a further 18 have preliminary evidence of impact. Many others at an earlier stage of development are committed to developing their evidence, and must be supported to do so.
  • Five programmes were rated by the EIF review as having had “no effect” in a rigorous study which failed to show consistent benefits for children. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these programmes will never work, some may adapt and be found to be effective in the future.
  • If commissioned, targeted and implemented carefully, many of these 75 programmes have the potential to enhance development and tackle problems identified in the early years and, for example, improve children’s behaviour and achievement at school, or prevent mental health problems when they are older.

About the author

Dr Kirsten Asmussen

Kirsten is head of what works, child development, at EIF.