Supporting A Strong Start for Children

Supporting A Strong Start for Children

The Duke Endowment believes that a good beginning for children bodes well for their lives as adults and for their communities. Our strategic emphasis on early childhood issues puts that belief into action.  

Approved by Trustees in 2017, this Zero to Eight emphasis aligns with new discoveries in neuroscience that leave little doubt about the value of intervening early. We know that in the earliest years of life, positive experiences set the foundation for learning, good health and resilience. By mitigating or preventing negative experiences and maximizing positive ones, we pave the way for better adult outcomes.

Zero to Eight Outcomes

With experts from Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy, the Endowment created a list of shared outcomes to steer our grantmaking in this work. The outcomes reflect our “whole child” approach, encompassing the three domains of physical, cognitive, and social-emotional well-being, and they are strong predictors of later success in school, the workplace and the community.

Dr. Kenneth Dodge, the Center’s founding and past director, explains more in the Q & A below. Dr. Dodge is the William McDougall Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University.

Q. How was this list developed?

Nine faculty experts in early childhood developed the list of shared outcomes, while others served as formal and informal advisers. We created a guiding set of principles, focusing on the prenatal period through age 8. We also wanted to focus on environmental and parenting influences on a child. From there, we looked at the markers that indicate good, healthy development.

Q. Let’s look more closely at the three domains. Will you explain them to us?

There’s physical development: height, weight, health, health care. There’s cognitive development: word knowledge, number knowledge, phonics. And there’s social-emotional development: self-control, friendships, social skills.

Health is probably the domain where we have the strongest history of charting development. When my children were young, the pediatrician would pull out her chart and say, ‘You were at the 25th percentile in height and weight last year, and here you are again, but you’re continuing to grow and develop.’ It was very clear and helpful. We don’t have anything quite like that in cognitive or social emotional development.

That’s part of what we want to figure out. In cognitive development, what does healthy functioning look like at age 3? What’s normative and how much latitude is there? The idea is to develop that thinking and then drill down to get specific indicators for measurement.

Measuring social-emotional development is complicated because it is measured while interacting with other people. Can you wait your turn in line? Can you calm yourself when someone makes you angry?

Q. How fast is research in this field progressing?

Fast. We are learning how to measure some of these ideas and constructs in different ways through observation, tests, interviews, and even biomarkers. We can measure stress responses as a measure of social-emotional development. We can observe how quickly a child calms after being upset, but also measure hormones, stress levels and heart rate. It’s an exciting time to be in the field.

Q. We describe this list of outcomes as reflecting our “whole child” approach. What does “whole child” mean?

Let’s think about kindergarten readiness and back up from there. You might ask, ‘What is it going to take at age 3, age 2, or age 1 to be on a trajectory to enter kindergarten ready to learn?’ You have to think about nutrition, for example, and physical development. For cognitive development, we want to measure the number of words a child knows and how well a child can solve number problems. Then there’s social-emotional development – getting along with peers, being able to self-regulate.

Each of these three domains affects the other. It’s hard to develop a cognitively and social-emotionally healthy child if that child does not also have good nutrition, for example, and vice versa.

Q. How do we know that these outcomes are strong predictors of later success?

A strong body of research shows that if a child is not reading by the end of third grade or not performing well on standardized achievement tests, that child has a high probability of not graduating from high school. The same body of research shows that a child who lacks social competence has an even higher probability of not being employed, not being self-sufficient, not having a successful marriage. Other research shows that kindergarten readiness predicts third grade outcomes. And now we’re finding that how a family is functioning at a child’s birth is going to predict kindergarten readiness.

Piecing those segments together affirms the idea of continuity in development when it comes to longer-term outcomes.

Q. Can we change the trajectory?

We believe we can, although the window of opportunity begins to close as a child gets older. That’s where the focus on early life, the period from birth to age 8, comes in. A trajectory may be set in motion, but it can also be deflected by life experiences. That hope is what motivates us.

Zero to Eight Outcomes

As one of four schools supported by The Duke Endowment through its Higher Education program area (along with Davidson College, Furman University and Johnson C. Smith University), Duke University is playing a valuable consultative role in our Zero to Eight emphasis.

Through its Center for Child and Family Policy, the university helped us create a list of shared outcomes to steer our grantmaking toward programs with the highest potential for impact. Duke University Professor Kenneth Dodge is the center’s founding and past director. 

Contact Us

Susan L. McConnell
Director, Higher Education  


Related Work

Area of Work

  • Campus and community engagement

Program Area

  • Higher Education

Areas of Work

  • Prevention and early intervention for at-risk children

    To equip children and families with skills to ensure that children reach developmental milestones to lead successful lives.

  • Out-of-home care for youth

    To drive child welfare systems toward greater accountability for child well-being.

  • Quality and safety of health care

    Improving the quality and safety of health care delivery

  • Access to health care

    Improving health by increasing access to comprehensive care

  • Prevention

    Expanding programs to promote health and prevent disease

  • Academic excellence

    Enhancing academic excellence through program and campus development

  • Educational access and success

    Increasing educational access and supporting a learning environment that promotes achievement

  • Campus and community engagement

    Promoting a culture of service, collaboration and engagement among schools and communities

  • Rural church development

    Building the infrastructure and capacity of United Methodist churches to enhance ministry and mission

  • Clergy leadership

    Strengthening United Methodist churches by improving the quality and effectiveness of church leadership

  • Congregational outreach

    Engaging United Methodist congregations in programs that serve their communities

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