Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Rethinking evidence-based practice and two-generation programs to create the future of early childhood policy

  • Jack P. Shonkoff (a1) and Philip A. Fisher (a2)

Half a century of research and program evaluation has fueled a diverse landscape of early childhood policies and practices that produce a range of positive effects on the life prospects of children who face the burdens of significant adversity. Drawing on advances in neurobiology, developmental psychology, developmental psychopathology, and prevention science, this paper presents a framework for elucidating underlying causal mechanisms that explain differences in outcomes, formulating enhanced theories of change about how to shift developmental trajectories, designing creative interventions and rethinking the concept of a two-generation strategy to produce breakthrough impacts, and launching a new era of investment in young children and their families that will achieve greater reductions in intergenerational disparities in learning, behavior, and health than those produced by current best practices. Particular attention is focused on the hypothesis that substantially better outcomes for vulnerable, young children could be achieved by greater attention to strengthening the resources and capabilities of the adults who care for them rather than by continuing to focus primarily on the provision of child-focused enrichment, parenting education, and informal support. Central to achieving this goal is the need to establish an innovation-friendly environment that embraces fast-cycle sharing, supports risk taking, and celebrates learning from failure.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Jack P. Shonkoff, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University, 50 Church Street, Cambridge, MA 02138; E-mail:
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

A. N. Almas , K. A. Degnan , A. Radulescu , C. A. Nelson III, C. H. Zeanah , & N. A. Fox (2012). Effects of early intervention and the moderating effects of brain activity on institutionalized children's social skills at age 8. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109, 1722817231.

D. E. Anderson , E. K. Vogel , & E. Awh (2011). Precision in visual working memory reaches a stable plateau when individual item limits are exceeded. Journal of Neuroscience, 31, 11281138.

E. Awh , & E. K. Vogel (2008). The bouncer in the brain. Nature Neuroscience, 11, 56.

W. S. Barnett (1993). Benefit–cost analysis of preschool education: Findings from a 25-year follow-up. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 63, 500508.

W. S. Barnett , K. Jung , D. J. Yarosz , J. Thomas , A. Hornbeck , R. Stechuk , (2008). Educational effects of the Tools of the Mind curriculum: A randomized trial. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23, 299313.

J. R. Best , & P. H. Miller (2010). A developmental perspective on executive function. Child Development, 81, 16411660.

C. Blair (2002). School readiness: Integrating cognition and emotion in a neurobiological conceptualization of children's functioning at school entry. American Psychologist, 57, 111127.

C. Blair , & C. C. Raver (2012). Child development in the context of adversity: Experiential canalization of brain and behavior. American Psychologist, 67, 309318.

R. H. Bradley , & R.F. Corwyn (2002). Socioeconomic status and child development. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 371399.

Y. Brehmer , H. Westerberg , & L. Bäckman (2012). Working-memory training in younger and older adults: Training gains, transfer, and maintenance. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 63.

J. Brooks-Gunn , L. J. Berlin , & A. S. Fuligni (2000). Early childhood intervention programs: What about the family? In J. P. Shonkoff & S. J. Meisels (Eds.), Handbook of early childhood intervention (2nd ed., pp. 549588). New York: Cambridge University Press.

R. L. Bryck , & P. A. Fisher (2012). Training the brain: Practical applications of neural plasticity from the intersection of cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, and prevention science. American Psychologist, 67, 87100.

D. Cicchetti (1990). A historical perspective on the discipline of developmental psychopathology. In J. E. Rolf , A. S. Masten , D. Cicchetti , K. H. Nuechterlein & S. Weintraub (Eds.). Risk and protective factors in the development of psychopathology (pp. 228). New York: Cambridge University Press.

D. Cicchetti , & M. I. Posner (2005). Editorial: Cognitive and affective neuroscience and developmental psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 17, 569575.

A. Diamond , W. S. Barnett , J. Thomas , & S. Munro (2007). Preschool program improves cognitive control. Science, 318, 13871388.

A. Diamond , & K. Lee (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333, 959964.

M. Dozier , O. Lindhiem , E. Lewis , J. Bick , K. Bernard , & E. Peloso (2009). Effects of a foster parent training program on young children's attachment behaviors: Preliminary evidence from a randomized clinical trial. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 26, 321332.

G. Duncan , P. Morris , & C. Rodrigues (2011). Does money really matter? Estimating impacts of family income on young children's achievement with data from random-assignment experiments. Developmental Psychology, 47, 12631279.

J. G. Elliott , S. E. Gathercole , T. P. Alloway , J. Holmes , & H. Kirkwood (2010). An evaluation of a classroom-based intervention to help overcome working memory difficulties and improve long-term academic achievement. Journal of Cognitive Education & Psychology, 9, 227250.

R. N. Emde , & J. L. Robinson (2000). Guiding principles for a theory of early intervention: A developmental–psychoanalytic perspective. In J. P. Shonkoff & S. J. Meisels (Eds.), Handbook of early intervention (pp. 160178). New York: Cambridge University Press.

E. F. Ester , J. T. Serences , & E. Awh (2009). Spatially global representations in human primary visual cortex during working memory maintenance. Journal of Neuroscience, 29, 1525815265.

G. W. Evans , & P. Kim (2013). Childhood poverty, chronic stress, self-regulation, and coping. Child Development Perspectives, 7(1), 4348.

D. Fishbein (2000). The importance of neurobiological research to the prevention of psychopathology. Prevention Science, 1, 89106.

D. Fishbein , C. Hyde , B. Coe , & M. J. Paschall (2004). Neurocognitive and physiological prerequisites for prevention of adolescent drug abuse. Journal of Primary Prevention, 24, 471495.

P. A. Fisher , & H. K. Kim (2007). Intervention effects on foster preschoolers' attachment-related behaviors from a randomized trial. Prevention Science, 8, 161170.

P. A. Fisher , & M. Stoolmiller (2008). Intervention effects on foster parent stress: Associations with child cortisol levels. Development and Psychopathology, 20, 10031021.

P. A. Fisher , M. Stoolmiller , A. M. Mannering , & P. Chamberlain (2011). RCT intervention effects on foster placement disruptions associated with problem behavior. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 79, 481487.

P. A. Fisher , M. J. Van Ryzin , & M. R. Gunnar (2011). Mitigating HPA axis dysregulation associated with placement changes in foster care. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36, 531539.

R. M. Ford , S. J. P. McDougall , & D. Evans (2009). Parent-delivered compensatory education for children at risk of educational failure: Improving the academic and self-regulatory skills of a Sure Start preschool sample. British Journal of Psychology, 100, 773797.

S. E. Fox , P. Levitt , & C. A. Nelson (2010). How the timing and quality of early experiences influence the development of brain architecture. Child Development, 81, 2840.

K. Fukuda , E. Awh , & E. K. Vogel (2010). Discrete capacity limits in visual working memory. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 20, 177182.

C. Garcia Coll , G. Lamberty , R. Jenkins , H. P. McAdoo , K. Crnic , B. H. Wasik , (1996). An integrative model for the study of developmental competencies in minority children. Child Development, 67, 18911914.

B. D. Goodson , J. I. Layzer , St. R. G. Pierre , L. S. Bernstein , & M. Lopez (2000). Effectiveness of a comprehensive, five-year family support program for low-income children and their families: Findings from the comprehensive child development program. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 15, 539.

B. K. Hamre , R. C. Pianta , A. J. Mashburn , & J. T. Downer (2012). Promoting young children's social competence through the preschool PATHS curriculum and MyTeachingPartner professional development resources. Early Education & Development, 23, 809832.

K. K. Hardy , V. W. Willard , & M. J. Bonner (2011). Computerized cognitive training in survivors of childhood cancer: A pilot study. Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing, 28, 2733.

J. J. Heckman (2006). Skill formation and the economics of investing in disadvantaged children. Science, 312, 19001902.

K. Howard , & J. Brooks-Gunn (2009). The role of home visiting programs in preventing child abuse and neglect. Future of Children, 19, 119146.

L. M. Justice , & P. C. Pullen (2003). Promising interventions for promoting emergent literacy skills: Three evidence-based approaches. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 23, 99113.

E. Knudsen , J. Heckman , J. Cameron , & J. Shonkoff (2006). Economic, neurobiological, and behavioral perspectives on building America's future workforce. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, 10155–62.

A. F. Lieberman , C. Ghosh Ippen , & P. Van Horn (2006). Child–parent psychotherapy: 6-month follow-up of a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 45, 913918.

J. W. Maag , & A. Katsiyannis (2010). Early intervention programs for children with behavior problems and at risk for developing antisocial behaviors: Evidence- and research-based practices. Remedial & Special Education, 31, 464475.

K. Magnuson , & H. Shager (2010). Early education: Progress and promise for children from low-income families. Children & Youth Services Review, 32, 11861198.

M. J. Meaney (2010). Epigenetics and the biological definition of gene × environment interactions. Child Development, 81, 4179.

G. E. Miller , & E. Chen (2013). The biological residue of childhood poverty. Child Development Perspectives. Advance online publication.

M. Nores , C. R. Belfield , W. S. Barnett , & L. Schweinhart (2005). Updating the economic impacts of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 27, 245261.

P. J. Olesen , H. Westerberg , & T. Klingberg (2004). Increased prefrontal and parietal activity after training of working memory. Nature Neuroscience, 7, 7579.

K. C. Pears , H. K. Kim , & P. A. Fisher (2012). Effects of a school readiness intervention for children in foster care on oppositional and aggressive behaviors in kindergarten. Children and Youth Services Review, 34, 23612366.

D. L. Rabiner , D. W. Murray , A. T. Skinner , & P. S. Malone (2010). A randomized trial of two promising computer-based interventions for students with attention difficulties. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 131142.

C. C. Raver (2012). Low-income children's self-regulation in the classroom: Scientific inquiry for social change. American Psychologist, 67, 681689.

C. C. Raver , E. K. Blackburn , M. Bancroft , & N. Torp (1999). Relations between effective emotional self-regulation, attentional control, and low-income preschoolers' social competence with peers. Early Education & Development, 10, 333350.

C. C. Raver , S. M. Jones , C. P. Li-Grining , M. Metzger , K. M. Champion , & L. Sardin (2008). Improving preschool classroom processes: Preliminary findings from a randomized trial implemented in Head Start settings. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23, 1026.

C. C. Raver , S. M. Jones , C. Li-Grining , F. Zhai , K. Bub , & E. Pressler (2011). CRSP's impact on low-income preschoolers' preacademic skills: Self-regulation as a mediating mechanism. Child Development, 82, 362378.

M. J. Reid , & C. Webster-Stratton (2001). The Incredible Years parent, teacher, and child intervention: Targeting multiple areas of risk for a young child with pervasive conduct problems using a flexible, manualized treatment program. Cognitive & Behavioral Practice, 8, 377386.

J. K. Roth , J. T. Serences , & S. M. Courtney (2006). Neural system for controlling the contents of object working memory in humans. Cerebral Cortex, 16, 15951603.

M. Röthlisberger , R. Neuenschwander , P. Cimeli , E. Michel , & C. M. Roebers (2012). Improving executive functions in 5- and 6-year-olds: Evaluation of a small group intervention in prekindergarten and kindergarten children. Infant & Child Development, 21, 411429.

M. R. Rueda , M. K. Rothbart , B. D. McCandliss , L. Saccomanno , & M. I. Posner (2005). Training, maturation, and genetic influences on the development of executive attention. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102, 1493114936.

S. Scott , & M. R. Dadds (2009). Practitioner review: When parent training doesn't work: Theory-driven clinical strategies. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 50, 14411450.

D. S. Shaw , T. J. Dishion , L. Supplee , F. Gardner , & K. Arnds (2006). Randomized trial of a family-centered approach to the prevention of early conduct problems: 2-year effects of the family check-up in early childhood. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 74, 19.

J. P. Shonkoff (2012). Leveraging the biology of adversity to address the roots of disparities in health and development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 1730217307.

J. P. Shonkoff , W. T. Boyce , & B. S. McEwen (2009). Neuroscience, molecular biology, and the childhood roots of health disparities: Building a new framework for health promotion and disease prevention. Journal of the American Medical Association, 301, 22522259.

J. P. Shonkoff , A. S. Garner , & Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care, Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. (2012). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, 129, e232e246.

A. T. Smyke , C. H. Zeanah , N. A. Fox , C. A. Nelson , & D. Guthrie (2010). Placement in foster care enhances quality of attachment among young institutionalized children. Child Development, 81, 212223.

S. Söderqvist , S. B. Nutley , J. Ottersen , K. M. Grill , & T. Klingberg (2012). Computerized training of non-verbal reasoning and working memory in children with intellectual disability. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 271.

C. Stevens , J. Fanning , D. Coch , L. Sanders , & H. Neville (2008) Neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research, 1205, 5569.

M. Willoughby , M. Greenberg , C. Blair , & C. Stifter (2007). Neurobehavioral consequences of prenatal exposure to smoking at 6 to 8 months of age. Infancy, 12, 273301.

A. M. Connell , T. J. Dishion , M. Yasui , & K. Kavanagh (2007). An adaptive approach to family intervention: Linking engagement in family-centered intervention to reductions in adolescent problem behavior. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75, 568579.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
  • URL: /core/journals/development-and-psychopathology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 40
Total number of PDF views: 294 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 861 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 27th May 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.