We need to tell a new story about early childhood

Author: Kate Stanley, Executive Director of @FrameWorksUK and previously a Board Director at NSPCC, Deputy Director at IPPR, and an adviser on the Early Years Steering Group convened by the then Duchess of Cambridge

Author: Kate Stanley is the Executive Director of @FrameWorksUK - a not-for-profit communications research organisation, and sister of the FrameWorks Institute in the US. Kate was previously a Board Director at NSPCC, Deputy Director at IPPR, and an adviser on the Early Years Steering Group convened by the then Duchess of Cambridge.

The gap between the science and reality

The evidence is now absolutely clear: our environment and experiences in the earliest days, weeks and months of our life are critical to how our lives turn out and to the kind of society we create. 

And yet, as a nation, we don’t behave like this is the case.

We don’t focus our nation’s energy and resources on supporting parents, carers, and their families and friends to do the very best they can to raise babies and very young children. We don’t invest in the kinds of services we know will help make certain every child can have the environment and experiences they need to thrive. Instead, some children are experiencing serious adversity and others are not being given the chance to flourish as they might.

In short, we act as if we don’t know – or don’t care.

So how do we change this - because we do care? How do we narrow the gap between what the science shows us to be necessary, and what we do? Do we need to shout louder? Or do we need to start to tell a new story about early childhood?

Research shows we need to tell a new story

Research shows [1] that we do indeed need to tell a new story: a story that makes clear the critical importance of early childhood. A story that explains why early childhood matters and why it is both urgent and possible that we do better for all very young children.
Over the last 23 years at FrameWorks, we have involved hundreds of thousands of people in research to understand how we can change how people think, feel and act when it comes to early childhood.

The research allows us to make evidence-based recommendations on how to communicate about early childhood in ways that will shift hearts and minds. These recommendations have been applied extensively in practice across the world – for example, through the work of Blackpool Better Start. But when we are trying to shift deeply engrained ways of thinking about the world; we need more people to tell this new story, more of the time – and louder!

Where to start? This essay focusses on three key research-backed elements of the new story we need to tell:

1. Explain why the early years matter

Evidence shows that in the UK we tend to respond well to communications approaches which highlight a collective, social responsibility to enable children to thrive – as well as to prevent harm to them [2]. Triggering this value helps people see early childhood as an issue for collective concern and action.

So, as early as possible, trigger the idea that young children are everyone’s responsibility. What we say first matters most, so triggering the value of social responsibility early in our communications establishes a productive and engaged mindset. We then need to call it back at regular intervals. And remind people that when babies and young children thrive, all of society thrives. We can do this in many different, simple ways, such as: ‘When we do the right thing and support parents and carers, babies thrive’.

Triggering the value of social responsibility also helps avoid activating common mental models or patterns of thinking that get in the way of support for change – like the idea of the ‘family bubble’ in which the family is a private space and young children are the sole responsibility of parents.

This mental model squeezes out the space for thinking about other things that also have a role to play like health services, parks, childcare, friends and family, decent housing and so on.

If we make the early years an issue for parents only, people can’t see the need for – and actually resist – calls for policy and practice changes because, in this way of thinking, all the solutions lie with ‘better parenting’. By triggering a sense of social responsibility, we can avoid activating this unproductive mental model and make a stronger case for investment in the early years.

2. Explain how child development works

Explaining how early development works is key to helping people see how it can be actively supported by changing the circumstances in which children develop. We might say something like: ‘Under 5s are developing at an amazing rate. Relationships with supportive adults are the active ingredient that helps them learn and grow every day’. This helps counter the common - and unhelpful - idea that: ‘children develop automatically, it’s all about their genes’.

We need to explain that development happens in response to our relationships and environment. This helps us see that when we change experiences and environments for young children, we change their outcomes.

We can explain that development is a serve-and-return process of interaction between very young children and caregivers, universal to all children. Emphasis on this universal process reinforces the idea that action in early years will help all families.

Conversely, terms like ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘vulnerable’ tend to focus attention on individuals or particular families and create a sense that this is about ‘other’ people. When we focus on individuals or groups, people tend to attribute differences in development to stereotypical characteristics they see as innate. But when we talk about universal processes, this is much less likely to happen.

People also tend to ‘age up’. When we say: ‘young children’, people think ‘primary school age children’. When we say ‘learning’ or ‘child development’, people think that’s only relevant to older children. When we say ‘childhood’, people often think of the times they remember – usually from school-age up. To counteract this, we need to refer specifically to pregnancy, babies, toddlers or very young children.

3. Show change is necessary and possible

While most people do understand that the early years are important – and tend to agree that development in early childhood should be more of a priority for wider society, they tend not to see increasing investment in the early years as a priority. People can also often be suspicious of purely economic arguments for investing in the early years. This means we need to show that investing, and getting it right in the early years, will lead to immediate positive impact for children and families.

As well as showing change is necessary, we need to show it’s possible. Show the early years matter but don’t leave people with a sense that problems early on are irreversibly damaging. If we leave people at the problem, people tend to think the problem is an inevitable characteristic of human nature or capitalism. But when we offer a way forward – which may be broad ideas or more specific solutions - we can avoid triggering this fatalism, and instead increase people’s belief that this is a problem we can fix.

These are the bones of the new story we need to tell about why the early years matter – for all children and all of us.


[1] N Kendall-Taylor, A Haydon and M Fond (2015), ‘Communicating Connections: Framing the relationships between social drivers, early adversity and child neglect’, FrameWorks Institute; accessed at https://www.frameworksinstitute.org/publication/communicating-connections-framing-the-relationship-between-social-drivers-early-adversity-and-child-neglect/

[2] M Fond, A Simon, A Haydon, N Kendall-Taylor (2015), ‘Attending to Neglect’, FrameWorks Institute; accessed August 2020 at https://www.frameworksinstitute.org/publication/attending-to-neglect-using-metaphors-and-explanatory-chains-to-reframe-child-neglect-in-the-united-kingdom/; M Gerstein Pineau, N Kendall-Taylor, E L’Hote, D Busso (2018) ‘Understandings of Care Experience and the Care System in Scotland’ FrameWorks Institute; accessed August 2020 at https://www.frameworksinstitute.org/publication/seeing-and-shifting-the-roots-of-opinion-mapping-the-gaps-between-expert-and-public-understandings-of-care-experience-and-the-care-system-in-scotland/