Highlights from the Society for Research in Child Development 2023 Biennial Meeting

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“Life is complicated, and to understand it as researchers and scholars…well, we have our work cut out for us,“ said Dr. Deborah Vandell at the Society for Research in Child Development’s multidisciplinary conference. Hundreds of researchers, scholars, graduate students, and practitioners presented at the four-day Salt Lake City event. Although their focus ranged from racial justice to STEM promotion, they all held the common goal of better understanding children’s development.  

As researchers who connect the science of the developing child to state policy, we were drawn to SRCD sessions on child care and cash transfers. In this post, we highlight a few “hot off the press” research findings.

Early Childhood Education Equity 

The issue of equity perfectly illustrates the complicated nature of the prenatal-to-3 field. At SRCD, equity popped up in presentations on the early childhood education (ECE) workforce, on access to high-quality ECE, on the measurement of ECE quality, and on the types of child care we prioritize in research.  

For example, we heard from Dr. Vanessa Rodriguez of the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Her presentation centered on the ECE workforce, which is comprised of nearly all women—and often women of color. Research often looks at the importance of consistent, high-quality child care to healthy child development. The missing element, according to Dr. Rodriguez, is the conversation about the mental health and wellbeing of the ECE workforce. 

 “Self-care will not solve systemic exploitation,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “Focusing on teacher stress, burnout, and trauma only pathologizes what is a perfectly adaptive response to toxic environmental contexts.” Instead, Rodriguez calls for “collective resources” to help educators cope. 

She asked us to humanize, acknowledge, and keep at the forefront the experiences of women and women of color. Each day, they navigate racist and sexist spaces. The ECE system is no different. Rodriguez’s program design engages women with an array of collective resources, including a four-phase process of deep skill development. That process enables teachers to filter out toxins, and in a sense, become filters and healers for the broader education system as they can engage in healthier and less toxic relationships with children and families. 

Equity and Quality Across Care Settings 

Another complex topic that SRCD attendees got to learn about was care settings. Across many sessions, researchers explored the sometimes-contentious relation between home-based and family child care versus center-based care. This distinction arose in topics such as the measurement of quality, the research field’s historical focus on center-based care, and parental choice.  

For example, one SRCD paper symposium focused on the use and impact of quality metrics in relation to several ECE topics: 

  • Child academic and behavioral outcomes 
  • The lack of quality rating mobility for licensed family child care professionals  

In a different symposium, several family and home-based child care researchers said that measurement of home-based care quality often uses modified center-based metrics. These grounded metrics are not designed with the often smaller, mixed-age range, home-based care settings in mind. Families may also have different rationales for choosing more intimate home-based settings.  

As Alexandra Patterson of the Home Grown funding collaborative said, parents seeking home- and family-based child care often value characteristics—such as cultural and linguistic congruity and community connections—that center-based metrics may not measure.  

Cash Transfers 

The Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center aims to serve as a resource for states creating systems of care that reduce disparities and ensure children thrive from the start. Our researchers continuously monitor the field for new insights about how to effectively fight childhood poverty. So, of course we attended SRCD sessions about the cash assistance research coming out of the Baby’s First Years study, which examines how income support may affect children’s early brain function and development.  

This multi-institutional, multi-year study zeroes in on a type of financial assistance known as cash transfers. Governments offer these programs to people experiencing poverty or facing a risk of falling into poverty. The programs aim to increase households’ real income. To receive a conditional cash transfer, a person must meet certain criteria by virtue of their actions. Unconditional cash transfers, on the other hand, come without obligation. The Baby’s First Years study provided unconditional cash transfers to mothers for the first several years of their children’s lives. 

At SRCD, the principal investigators shared some of their causal findings from data collected at each child’s third birthday. The results seem to confirm the theory that if you give families more money, mothers will invest in resources for their children. On the other hand, results do not seem to fully support the theory that increasing income will reduce familial stress.  

At a round table discussion, Dr. Brenda Jones Harden of the Columbia School of Social Work said, “To be conditional or to be unconditional, that is the next question!” This humorous Shakespeare reference led to a serious academic discussion about research into whether cash transfers more effectively alleviate poverty with or without conditions. The next wave of research—including the Baby’s First Years study—may more fully answer this question. 

Embrace the Complications and Pursue Knowledge 

To prenatal-to-3 researchers like us, spending four days deep in the science of the developing child was a wonderful experience. We also shared research from the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center.  

Four of us participated: 

  • Senior Data Analyst Dr. Hilary Doe presented on a matched comparison group study asking whether a commonly used home visiting program model reduces child maltreatment. 
  • Senior Research Associate Monica Navarro presented on an ongoing multi-year mixed methods study investigating family needs and differences among those receiving certain prevention-focused home visiting services. 

A major part of our work at the Policy Impact Center is building the evidence base for effective and equitable policymaking. We evaluate state policies and programs to determine what works, for whom, and under what conditions. And we analyze the impact of policy change, including on racial and ethnic disparities. 

For more original research from our team, visit the Resources page

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