Shaping Us was launched in January 2023 to raise awareness of the unique importance of early childhood and how it shapes the rest of our lives.
Actions for change
Currently, awareness of the science about the significance of the early years is low. Educators, experts, professionals and organisations who understand the early childhood years all have a role to:
Improve understanding of why the early years matter, including helping to translate the science, and explaining what people can do that makes a difference and what works to deliver better outcomes.
Change the way we think about early childhood to highlight the importance of the emotional development of infants and the wellbeing of caregivers. Attention should be given to good emotional development as well as to good physical development. We need a more holistic approach that goes beyond a focus on childbirth, nutrition, immunisation, the ‘milestones’ of physical development and measures of academic progress.
Provide accessible and relatable information to primary caregivers and all those raising under-fives to build their knowledge, emotional literacy and skills so that they can engage in nurturing relationships and provide rich home learning environments and experiences. The resources provided by the BBC’s Tiny Happy People are just one example, of many, of materials that are being created to help parents. We need to think creatively and dynamically about how to make sure that information and knowledge about early childhood development reaches all parents and wider society.
Educate the next generation. Changes in attitudes and behaviour will be achieved more quickly if knowledge is shared with school-age children, who in time will be the next generation of parents. Information about healthy development in the early years and the science that lies behind our understanding should be included in the school curriculum.
Healthy development, from pregnancy onwards, requires nurturing relationships, environments and experiences. Everybody has a role to play, and collectively we have the power to:
Give greater priority to mental wellbeing across society, which in turn will better support parents and children, including by building greater emotional literacy to support social and emotional development in the early years.
Value the role of parents, carers and families, creating space for their voices to be heard. Listening is key to understanding needs and challenges and to identifying better ways to support healthy childhood development.
Invest in the mental health, wellbeing and emotional literacy of parents and caregivers to help build virtuous cycles of improved wellbeing and positive stable relationships across the lifespan. This includes ensuring that all health and social care professionals in contact with parents during pregnancy and in the early years have a sufficient understanding of parental mental health issues and of healthy parent-infant interactions and intergenerational trauma.
Build the capacity and capability of parents and caregivers to foster healthy relationships between adults and children, starting with strong bonds of attachment. This will support the foundations for mental wellbeing and resilience for the next generation. However, the feelings of judgement and isolation experienced by many parents point to a wider need to normalise and destigmatise the accessing of parenting support and programmes, in the same way that we have seen a destigmatisation of talking about mental health.
Address poverty. Parents can only engage with a system of support if they have the capacity to do so. Urgent steps are required to ensure that families with the youngest children are not struggling to survive without adequate nutrition, nappies and clothes and affordable and safe housing, and to ensure that the most vulnerable parents get the right specialist help in relation to mental health.
Create safe, healthy and nurturing environments and experiences, including rich home learning environments and high-quality early years education and childcare, and provide easy access to nature and outdoor space.
We can leverage human capital and connection so that families feel supported in all contexts. Other parents, the ecosystem of organisations that exist to support families in the early years and wider society all have a critical role to play. Non-parents have as important a role as parents in making communities family-friendly. Collectively we can:
Encourage and scale up parent-to-parent help. All parents and carers need support, with family and friends usually being the first port of call. There are wonderful examples of peer-support initiatives – from informal online groups to organised volunteer services – that meet practical and emotional needs. In some places there are parent champions who are an invaluable and trusted source of information and who build bridges to local services.
Harness communities’ strengths in support of families. The pandemic, for all the challenges it has created, has served as a reminder of the power of community - from the explosion of mutual aid across the country to the more than a million people who signed up to volunteer with the NHS. Local charities and services have also worked together in new ways, gaining better understandings of families’ needs. Many families say that they feel better supported by their communities than in the past. Communities can build on this moment to:
Create welcoming, non-judgemental environments that support parental wellbeing, including outdoor and green spaces;
Encourage and support help-seeking, so that it is seen as the norm for parents to look for help and to receive it;
Use their voice to ensure that early childhood is prioritised.
Champion the value of high-quality, evidence-based parenting programmes and support. Parenting programmes have demonstrated the potential to prevent a range of social, emotional and behavioural problems. Evaluations have demonstrated that combined universal and targeted approaches reduce the prevalence rates of child and adult mental ill health and rates of child abuse and neglect.
In the workplace, encourage and facilitate a more family-friendly society. Our workplaces have huge power in shaping a culture that supports the early years, whether in terms of retaining staff or long-term investment in the development of a future productive workforce. In the US, 3,000 business leaders have signed up to ReadyNation, a movement that seeks to “strengthen business through smart investments in children and youth”. Many of those who are engaged have a wider perspective on the importance of the early years and are supporting early childhood programmes both within and outside of their own businesses. We need employers in the UK to do the same. Employers can support families in the early years by coming together to share ideas, experience and knowledge about supporting employees as they become parents, and for example by:
Supplementing statutory provision for paid leave, ensuring that all parents and carers have sufficient and equal paid maternity and paternity leave;
Providing flexibility in working hours to meet parents’ needs, and ensuring that they always have the confidence to ask for such arrangements. The pandemic has demonstrated that flexible working is possible, without damaging business, in many more jobs than we previously considered.
We can support the early years workforce better so that workers feel more valued, recognised and equipped to be the best professionals they can be. There are thousands of dedicated and hardworking individuals who are committed to supporting families in the early years, from pregnancy onwards. Their work is not always properly recognised or valued but, whether as midwives, health visitors, providers of early help and specialist support or early education and childcare workers, they make a huge difference. For example, it has been shown repeatedly that early childhood education and childcare can have a positive effect on children’s developmental outcomes when the quality of services is high. Skilled and well-supported practitioners are key to the quality of services and can make a proven difference, particularly for children from low-income and at-risk families. We need to:
Recognise the importance of the role played by the early years workforce and reflect this in the quality of training, in support for their emotional wellbeing and in the value we attach to their roles. Universal services and professionals (midwives and health visitors) and primary care services (GPs) must have the support and capacity to enable them to meet need and achieve a shift to both physical and mental health care.
Ensure that those who work with children and parents have good and easy access to the latest scientific research and support to translate the science into practice. Practitioner training needs to include mental health guidance to ensure that the skills and capacity exist to support parents and all aspects of healthy child development.
Encourage and enable practitioners to pull together, harnessing a sense of joint purpose and common cause in the early years sector. In some parts of the sector there is increasing understanding of the benefits of holistic training on all aspects of healthy childhood development. The Royal College of Midwives, for example, has published a guide on Parental Emotional Wellbeing and Infant Development, providing “focussed, clinically relevant and evidence based information and advice on the inextricably linked issues of parental mental health, the parent-baby relationship, and infant development”.
We can support research and put data more effectively to work for the early years. As already noted, data on babies and infants is both patchy and lacking in consolidation. At the same time, there are gaps in research - and where it does exist, it isn’t consistently used to inform practice. We need to:
Invest in research of all kinds to build our body of knowledge, including psychological, behavioural, social and implementation science, longitudinal studies and economic evaluations. A new study by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), launched in May 2021 and tracking 8,000 families over their child’s first five years, is a great example of the kind of work we need to see more of.
Consistently use research and evidence to educate practice, and help commissioners of services and professionals to make the space to hear and effectively use that evidence.
Gather data routinely and consistently from birth onwards to allow for early identification of emotional and physical developmental needs and the tracking of outcomes. Robust datasets will also support research and so increase our knowledge of what makes a difference.
Harness knowledge from the private sector to find safe ways to share data between organisations. Data are vital to our understanding of need and outcomes, and rigorous collection of data and joining up of datasets (presently held in separate ‘silos’) are essential to forming a complete picture of the child.
We can strengthen the foundations of support for all through making a long-term commitment to building and sustaining an effective system. This will require:
A national framework providing a common agenda to drive holistic and preventative early childhood support. We need continuity of care and a minimum level of support for the mental and physical wellbeing of all children and parents from pregnancy onwards. This should reflect what all parents need and value, and what evidence has shown will make a difference.
Deeper collaborative working at the local level. A new national framework will create more opportunities to develop shared priorities and deliver collective impact through the public, private and voluntary sectors working together more effectively. But collaboration also needs to be driven and owned locally by those working with families. There are some great examples of energy and effort being put into this way of thinking – for example, Early Learning Communities and the Team Around the Setting model. Children’s centres, family hubs and digital support all have a role to play. It will be essential to expand these kinds of approach and to harness new partnerships formulated in lockdown in order to provide families with more holistic support.
A measurable child outcomes framework that can be used throughout the early years and will help us to understand how children are developing at all ages and across all domains of development.