Essays on People, Place & Purpose

Investing in What Works for America's Communities

Mobilizing Science to Reduce Intergenerational Poverty

by James M. Radner and Jack P. Shonkoff

When we met with a community agency providing child care for vulnerable children and jointly reviewed their outcomes— applying formal data and staff experience—we found that one inhibitor of success was the tendency to lose ground after program exit. Working with researchers to apply the broader theory of change described above, the agency is now designing tailored interventions to support families as their children transition to kindergarten or Head Start. This can involve the application of insights14 and tools developed by researchers in other contexts (for example, an experimental set of manual or electronic games that parents and children can play together to build cognitive and executive functioning skills)15 as well as adaptations to the specific “transition” problem (such as through specially supported family game nights for alumni).16 Concurrently, researchers can draw lessons from experiences in this particular context as they design broadly applicable learning tools for other purposes. Finally, with state policymakers at the table, further discussions could focus on how these intervention strategies could benefit from policy reforms (such as in transition regulations governing the child welfare system).


Effective connections rarely happen spontaneously. They require active support that can be generated through face-to-face meetings, web linkages, and collaborative problem solving. Most important, however, productive connection takes time.

Constructive dissatisfaction with the status quo serves as an engine for innovation. Impatience for impact at scale for multiple populations simultaneously, however, nearly guarantees frustration. Fast, large-scale program gains depend on the rare phenomenon of already existing transformative ideas that are immediately acceptable to key (and typically entrenched) actors. Consequently, innovators need time. However, they must also work fast, not only because of stakeholder pressures but also because success requires trying many new things, learning from both progress and setbacks, and testing modified interventions repeatedly in quick cycles.

Stated simply, effective stakeholders must strike a balance between the patience required for large-scale change and the impatience that drives discovery, especially when it is guided by visionary stretch outcomes and measured against testable theories of change. In this spirit, current efforts to promote innovation in early childhood policy and practice are being designed to include both a connection function (to leverage conflict and embrace context) and an acceleration function (to both respect and push the dimension of time).

Washington State, for example, has developed connection through a cross-agency working group of policy leaders who are collaborating with 11 community sites across the state and a team of participating scientists. An early product of this collaboration, now heading for field testing, is a new curriculum on executive functioning with a video tool designed for state program leaders, community-service providers, and caregivers. This will enable programs across the state to begin acting on the theory of change we described above, so shared knowledge can accumulate without each intervention having to wait for results from another.

Meanwhile, on the acceleration front, two of those 11 community agencies are now working more closely with scientists and policymakers to design pilot interventions geared to stretch outcomes for the most vulnerable populations they serve (such as families needing transition support, as we described above). Seeking the investment of local philanthropists, each team is developing a funding strategy that can, with full accountability, catalyze a quick launch and ongoing empirical revision of program designs. In short, the aim is to accommodate and even nurture impatience for discovery.

Impatience for discovery of pathways to stretch outcomes is well served by close attention to early feedback at the community level. That feedback gains power from an innovation design that works backward from stretch outcomes through the formulation of a provisional theory of change to hypotheses about what must be true about a specific intervention to actually achieve those goals. These are the assumptions that need quick testing. As Scott Anthony observed about business innovation, “No matter how smart you are, your first plan is sure to be wrong—test and learn to figure out how.”17 From university laboratories to community antipoverty coalitions, early learning about what’s wrong is a critical challenge that all successful innovators must master.


Community-based strategies occupy an important niche in the effort to combat intergenerational poverty. Although the rationale for such strategies remains strong, the complexity of the challenges and the diversity of the interventions that have been tried (with variable success) have made it difficult to build cumulative impact. Advances in the biology of adversity, linked to practical experience, offer an opportunity to develop new community-based strategies that could catalyze greater impact and sustained progress.

To capitalize on this opportunity, many communities would benefit from a focused approach to innovation that enables direct engagement with researchers and other stakeholders. This could begin productively with a commitment to ambitious outcomes for defined subpopulations and collaborative development of a theory of change that is sufficiently inclusive to overcome stakeholder conflict and geographic separation. When resources are provided by investors who understand the need for “intellectual venture capital,” innovative thinkers and doers could then design pilot interventions geared to those outcomes and subpopulations, and ignite fast-cycle action learning to deliver local results while testing and enhancing the broader theory of change. A compelling new framework for such collaborative action beckons. Through focused reduction of neighborhood sources of toxic stress, communities can apply converging biological and experiential knowledge to dramatically curtail the cycle of intergenerational poverty that still threatens the learning, health, and life prospects of millions of young children.


  1. This challenge was recognized in the 1960s as policymakers worked to improve on early War on Poverty results; Robert Kennedy famously called it the need to “grasp the web whole.”
  2. For a recent account of pitfalls and strategies in this arena, see Xavier de Souza Briggs, Networks, Power, and a Dual Agenda: New Lessons and Strategies for Old Community Building Dilemmas (Boston: MIT, 2007). Available at (retrieved March 2012).
  3. For an insightful review of this challenge, see Lisbeth B. Schorr, Common Purpose (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1997).
  4. This challenge, too, was encountered by community efforts in the 1960s, as Schorr (ibid., p. 311) notes.
  5. “Population” in this essay refers to a definable group of vulnerable children or families in a geographic area.
  6. Environmental sources of toxic stress include deep poverty, child maltreatment, social exclusion, chronic exposure to violence, and parental substance abuse. See the recent American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) technical report: J.P. Shonkoff, A.S. Garner, the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care, Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, “The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress,” Pediatrics 129 (1) (January 2012): e232–246, and the AAP policy statement: Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care, Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, “Early Childhood Adversity, Toxic Stress, and the Role of the Pediatrician: Translating Developmental Science into Lifelong Health,” Pediatrics 129 (1) (January 2012): e224–231.
  7. See National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper No. 3 (updated 2009). Available at
  8. Examples of executive functioning skills include working memory (such as ability to hold in mind and follow a sequence of instructions), inhibitory control (such as ability to delay gratification), and cognitive flexibility (such as ability to adapt to changes in rules). See Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “Building the Brain’s ‘Air Traffic Control’ System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function.” Working Paper No. 11 (2011). Available at
  9. Such practitioner observations, which we heard frequently, are in turn well supported by relevant research. See, e.g., Linda S. Pagani et al., “Relating Kindergarten Attention to Subsequent Developmental Pathways of Classroom Engagement in Elementary School,” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 40(5) (2012): 715-725.
  10. We have seen this approach work in complex settings, such as when a community bridged racial and ethnic differences by following this sequence both in plenary sessions and in small working groups that reflected the diversity of the whole. However, it is far too early to report results against stretch outcomes.
  11. For example, a community-based team, including agency and civic leaders, single-parent mothers, public officials, and researchers is currently considering an intervention strategy that aims to build such skills through a combination of parent (and parent-child) mental health services with employment and life coaching.
  12. See E. J. Costello et al., “Relationships between Poverty and Psychopathology: A Natural Experiment,” Journal of the American Medical Association 290 (15) (2003): 2023–2029.
  13. It is thus helpful to begin in settings where effective community work has already created a functioning planning forum, including a full range of stakeholders from families to public officials. A good example is the New Haven, CT, MOMS Partnership,
  14. For example, based on laboratory results reported in Allyson P. Mackey et al., “Differential Effects of Reasoning and Speed Training in Children,” Developmental Science 14 (3) (2011): 582–590. See also S. B. Nutley et al., “Gains in Fluid Intelligence after Training Non-Verbal Reasoning in 4-Year-Old Children: A Controlled, Randomized Study,” Developmental Science 14 (3) (2011): 591–601.
  15. Relevant background includes research on computer tools to train and measure executive functioning, and on the role of parent-child interaction, including play, in cognitive development. In addition to the two Developmental Science studies cited above, see, for example, G. B. Ramani and R. S. Siegler, “Promoting Broad and Stable Improvements in Low-Income Children’s Numerical Knowledge through Playing Number Board Games,” Child Development 79 (2) (2008): 375–394; and A. Bernier et al., “Social Factors in the Development of Early Executive Functioning: A Closer Look at the Caregiving Environment,” Developmental Science 15 (1) (2012): 12–24.
  16. As the agencies recognize, families will need logistical support to make it to game nights, and these evening programs themselves need thoughtful structure to engage parents, teachers, and children. Some families will need significant therapeutic support before regular participation in events like this would be feasible for them.
  17. Scott D. Anthony, The Little Black Book of Innovation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), p. 206.

One Comment

  1. Ria Lawson Reply

    Just want to say how timely yor essay is and how relevant the approach to energising a new way of tackling poverty not only ecomonic but poverty of positive early childhood experiences that have as you ably articulate been more than toxic for the vulnerable children and their families. I am at once stimulated and challenged by your approach to a shared purpose and responsibility to reduce the inter generational horrors in our society. The use of science to stir a common cord amongst all stake holders; the inclusive approach; the development of stretch outcomes alongside power with; a strength based approach with shared and collaborative problem solving – more than one way to skin a cat as we say in Australia – all of this excites me as I begin my new job as Senior Early Childhood Development Coordinator working to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable poor children and their families in the communities of central Victoria.

    Thank you very much for your inspiring, sensible and I reckon, do-able approach to the betterment of our society …

    St Luke’s Anglicare

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