Boston is mobilising dozens of institutions, from healthcare centres to churches, to educate parents in the “Boston Basics”; five simple principles to improve children’s brain development. Created at Harvard University and based on years of scientific research, the principles are distributed by videos and pamphlets to thousands of families, many of whom aren’t familiar with parenting techniques that boost cognitive development. In doing so, the campaign hopes to close the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic skill gaps that develop by the age of two.
Results & Impact
Boston Basics has around 100 active partner organisations in the city from 12 different sectors, including but not limited to hospitals, childcare centres, museums, workplaces, faith-based organisations and libraries. It is too early to publish results, but each of the five principles are based on evidence from several scientific impact studies.
City of Boston, Black Philanthropy Fund, The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, WGBH Public Broadcasting
The Boston Basics are five simple, memorable phrases designed to have the most impact on children’s brain development in the first 1,000 days. The evidence-based principles - such as “maximise love, manage stress” and “talk, sing and point” - highlight the ways in which parents can improve their children’s cognitive development, some of which they will already be practising. The centrepiece of the campaign is a set of five brief videos that describe each phrase and explain why each part matters. Pointing at things, for example, helps children associate words with objects. Partner organisations are given the same resources, but are free to decide how they incorporate the Basics into their existing work.
Cost & Value
The development and launch costs for the campaign were approximately $750,000 during the first 18-24 months.
Launched in early 2016
As opposed to a top-down policy, working to engage community institutions on a grassroots level has required personal outreach around the city, involving a lot of time spent presenting to different agencies and organisations. Meanwhile, building new capacities - such as an app - requires increased funding, which the campaign is working hard to secure.
The campaign has spread to other US towns and cities, including Peekskill, Ossining, Yonkers and Elmsford.
Boston is tackling this issue head-on by harnessing the engagement of institutions – from healthcare centres to churches – around the city. These partners have become distributors of five evidence-based parenting principles – the Boston Basics” – that aim to bolster children’s brain development.
“We were looking for something that could make a difference to the lives of people in the community, and we quickly concluded that this was it. This was a program that could actually be a real game-changer,” said Jeff Howard, Chair of the Black Philanthropy Fund (BPF) which has provided most of the funding.
The Basics are distributed by educational videos and pamphlets, and were developed by Ron Ferguson, Director of Harvard University’s Achievement Gap Initiative. He noticed that many families – particularly in Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods – were unfamiliar with techniques to encourage cognitive development in children’s early years.
“We’ve mobilised close to 100 organisations around the city in less than two years”
The skills differences which develop by the age of two have a significant knock-on effect; average racial and ethnic gaps in the United States equal three to four years of learning by the age of 17. Boston itself has a socio-economic school achievement gap which is worse than nearly 70% of major American cities. Intervening in a child’s early years, therefore, is vital for improving “school readiness”, which Ferguson identifies as the ultimate aim of Boston Basics.
Supported by a national committee of experts, Ferguson transformed years of early cognitive development research into a set of memorable phrases – the five Basics:
- Maximise love, manage stress
- Talk, sing, and point
- Count, group, and compare
- Explore through movement and play
- Read and discuss stories
“What’s unique about the Boston Basics is that it has distilled the information in a very elegant way. It’s not information overload, it’s language that’s easily accessible. It’s a set of practices, many of which you were probably already doing, but we’re allowing you to understand how that practice fits together,” said Turahn Dorsey, the inaugural Chief of Education at the City of Boston.
With the help of the TV station WGBH, the BPF’s initial investment created brief videos which became the centrepiece of the campaign. Each video describes a principle and explains why each part of the phrase matters; pointing at things, for example, helps children to associate words with objects. “It’s simple but it’s also sophisticated in so far as there are a number of ideas embedded here,” Ferguson said.
“The videos really kicked the project off into a new gear, and exposed us to a lot more people,” said Howard.
Partner organisations from 12 sectors – including hospitals, childcare centres, museums, workplaces, faith-based organisations, libraries and even barbershops – are given the videos and pamphlets, but are free to decide how they incorporate Boston Basics into their existing work.
While the impetus came from Ron Ferguson and the BPF, the City of Boston has played a key role in providing a network of public sector workers to inform the campaign. These include staff in early learning centres and health outreach workers in the public school system.
“We’ve mobilised close to 100 organisations, delivery points if you will, in less than two years, which is quite a significant social impact,” said Wendell Knox from the BPF Board, who spearheads the outreach work.
The campaign is now working on a variety of new resources, including an app and an online toolkit consisting of discussion protocols, presentation formats, and custom-made videos for people in particular sectors – such as doctors and nurses discussing how they incorporate the Basics in a healthcare setting.
Because the campaign is all about knowledge, it can go a lot further than high-quality early childcare services’ limited capacity to serve children and families across the board. Boston Basics’ development and launch costs were approximately $750,000 during the first 18-24 month. The funds were raised from contributions by individuals – including all of the trustees of the BPF – and from local and national foundations and businesses.
“The game plan is to prove this can be done at scale in a city like Boston”
However, the campaign’s early stage – it began in early 2016 – means that it hasn’t yet compiled data on effectiveness. Ferguson hopes that the wealth of evidence behind each principle makes up for this. For example, one such study found that 18-month-olds’ gestures predicted their vocabulary size and sentence complexity at 42 months old.
Another challenge for the campaign is that working to engage community institutions on a grassroots level has required a great deal of personal engagement around the city, including presenting to different agencies and organisations. Meanwhile, building new capacities, such an app, requires increased funding, which the campaign is working hard to secure.
The patented model is being used elsewhere, with “Basics” campaigns in Peekskill, Ossining, Yonkers and Elmsford. However, they believe it can go much further.
“This has international implications. Something we got into because of its implications for black children turns out to be a way that we can serve children in general,” Knox said.
For now, though, he said, “The game plan is to prove this can be done at scale in a city like Boston, and that’s a multi-year effort.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/walknboston)