How to Target Intergenerational Poverty With a Basic Life Skill

A growing body of research suggests that executive function (EF) and self-regulation are essential skills that enable children and adults to be successful in their daily lives. EF and self-regulation are tied to numerous positive outcomes across the life span – including children’s academic achievement and positive behavior in school; and adults’ success in the workplace, income and savings, and general health and well-being[1] [2].

EF skills are important because they enable children to focus, remember and follow directions, and exercise self-control. In adults, these skills support more complex behaviors such as planning, multi-tasking, and weighing multiple options in light of long-terms goals, all of which promote effective decision-making[3]. EF and self-regulation may even buffer low-income youth from some of the harmful effects of poverty, by enabling coping skills such as emotion regulation and flexible problem-solving[4] [5].

Yet the conditions associated with poverty often undermine the development of these critical skills. Low-income children are more likely to have lower levels of EF[6][7]; and chronic exposure to poverty may make it especially challenging for adults to marshal the cognitive resources necessary to plan, prioritize, and access the supports and services that are available to them[8].

Despite the overwhelming evidence that EF and self-regulation are promising targets for programs that support low-income families, few if any programs exist that are designed to simultaneously build both child and parent EF-related skills in a coherent system of supports. SECURe Families was designed to fill this gap.

Three Big Ideas

SECURe Families is built on three big ideas. The first idea: use the science of EF to design skill-building strategies for both children and adults. Our goal is to provide supports to children, parents, and teachers that are along a common theme, and do it in a way that resonates with what children and adults each face in their own settings. At the core of the SECURe approach is a set of concrete, age-appropriate strategies for building EF and self-regulation skills in both children and adults.

The second idea: align strategies across home and school. Aligning experiences across settings is likely to generate bigger impacts than focusing in only one place or on one target. SECURe Families was developed to work in parallel with an existing school-based intervention that has been shown to improve children’s EF-related behaviors and academic skills[9].

The third idea: provide direct support for the everyday challenges of parenting. We can’t make the difference we want with children if we don’t think carefully about adults[10]. While there are many challenges facing low-income parents – including limited access to education, health, employment, and housing – one area of stress and strain that is common to all parents is managing the often difficult behaviors of young children. SECURe Families is designed to give parents concrete strategies for handling everyday “pressure points” – universal challenges of parenting that are exacerbated under conditions of stress, in particular stress associated with poverty.

​Using the Science of EF to Interrupt Cycles of Stress

A key finding from recent research is that the prefrontal cortex – responsible for EF skills like focus, planning, and self-control – is closely linked to brain regions that are responsible for signaling emotions like fear, anger, and anxiety[11][12]. These brain regions are connected through the stress response system, which is designed to alert the body in times of danger and initiate physiological changes that allow you to react fast when needed. These changes put your body into an automatic “flight or fight” mode, so you can run away from a potential threat or protect your family or home – in essence, enabling an immediate response without consideration of future consequences or long-term goals.

This is an adaptive system, but it comes at a cost. When stress takes over, it shuts down the control center of the brain, inhibiting EF skills and making it difficult to think clearly or make effective long-term decisions[13]. Research suggests that chronic exposure to poverty-related stressors can change the basic architecture of the brain, particularly the areas responsible for learning, memory, planning, and self-control[14]. This makes it increasingly difficult for children and adults to organize their behavior in ways that drive success in school, the workplace, and other areas of life.

But the story here is not just about chronic stressors and long-term changes in the brain. This “stress cycle” happens all the time and in all of us: we can all think of moments when we react impulsively even though we know better. Imagine walking into your home after a particularly stressful and tiring day at work, and you find your children falling apart in ways they often do at the end of the day – needing dinner or help with homework right away, getting into conflicts with each other, or simply wanting to connect immediately on their own terms. Under conditions of stress (and the exhaustion that often comes with it), it is difficult manage these moments, to put one’s own needs aside and to respond in a calm and effective way, even though you know responding with tension, frustration, or anger is likely to escalate the situation.

SECURe Families interrupts the stress cycle by building key executive function skills and putting the front of the brain back in control - so everyone can go from their stressed self to their best self.

The impact of these “pressure point” moments can be hyper-salient for low-income families. A young child’s challenging behavior can make it difficult to get out of the house and to work on-time, and therefore impact a parent’s ability to keep a job or follow-through with important commitments. This is frustrating and inconvenient for all parents, but for adults who have limited job security and limited financial resources, the stakes are higher; these moments exert out-sized pressure on an already taxed family system.

Over time, frequent conflicts about behavior can undermine parental self-efficacy, contribute to a negative view of one’s child, and erode the sense of connection that is essential for relationships that serve to buffer children from stress and other adverse life experiences. For the young child, strained and negative interactions, persistent yelling, and harsh parenting can itself become a chronic stressor. Additionally, children may learn to react with similar impulsivity, aggression, or withdrawal, instead of learning the self-regulation skills that are reinforced when parents respond to challenging situations in calm and supportive ways.

All parents love their children and want to do their best, but many low-income parents are at a double-disadvantage, because the toxic stress associated with poverty can undermine or impede the use of skills that are necessary for effective parenting[15], skills that many parents have and can use under calmer circumstances. For adults living in poverty, an impulsive or harsh reaction to misbehavior, hyperactivity, or neediness (all quite typical behaviors of young children) may happen faster and with more intensity, and may trigger their own past experience with trauma or abuse as a young child. Self-control, emotion regulation, and decision-making skills are compromised under these conditions, which can make accessing these skills even more difficult, particularly in moments that require adults to replace previously learned behaviors with new, more effective parenting practices. Over time, patterns of negative interaction may cascade into a loss of control with more dramatic and devastating effects.

By giving low-income parents a set of strategies for managing challenging moments, SECURe aims to improve the quality of everyday care-giving and buffer children from the harmful effects of toxic stress. These strategies may help to interrupt an inter-generational cycle of trauma and adverse life experiences that impacts many children and families in poverty.

These moments happen every day in both school and home settings, and play out in the interactions between adults and children. They are a distressing signal of the intimate ways that cycles of stress and poverty can be transmitted across multiple generations; yet they also suggest a powerful mechanism for improving the daily experiences and trajectories of low-income families. As illustrated by a recent New Yorker article, the work is in the relationships: daily parent-child interactions hold opportunity for both tremendous devastation and tremendous growth[16].

Key Features of the Intervention

What? SECURe Families consists of a series of nine workshops that unfold over the course of a school year. Workshops are facilitated by a community-based social worker, and aim to build a peer network and social support system among cohorts of low-income parents. Workshops are designed to interrupt cycles of stress and problem behavior at home, by introducing strategies that help adults manage these moments more effectively – for example, building EF skills with daily “Brain Games”[17], learning how to identify when the “stress siren” is taking over, and practicing cool-down strategies.

When? SECURe Families is designed around salient developmental moments. Research indicates that brain regions supporting EF and self-regulation have the ability to change and grow, in particular during the early childhood period and during the transition to adulthood or new parenting[18]. These are key windows of opportunity for building EF skills: they are sensitive periods in the development of the prefrontal cortex, which means the brain is especially “plastic” or able to build new connections through learning and the practice of new skills. Patterns that get established during these windows may influence lifelong trajectories of learning, health, and behavior. SECURe Families is specifically designed for parents of young children and it addresses unique challenges that arise during this time.

Where? SECURe Families focuses on the home environment, because parent-child interactions are a key context for building EF and self-regulation skills. Additionally, the content of each Families workshop is designed to align with what children are doing in the SECURe classroom curriculum, and with what teachers are doing through the SECURe Professional Development system. Across each of these groups (children, teachers, and parents) are a common set of elements. The SECURe strategies (i.e., Brain Games, Feelings/Stress Thermometer, cool-down strategies) are scalable and easily deployable to help children and adults address challenges that arise across multiple environments.

How? SECURe workshops are organized in a deliberate fashion to reinforce cycles of skill building. Each month, the workshop is structured in the following way:

  1. Brain Basics – parents learn about brain development and are introduced to a new SECURe strategy for supporting positive behavior and building EF-related skills at home.
  2. Make a Plan – parents set a goal for the month and make a plan for how they will use the SECURe strategy to address “pressure points” with their child.
  3. Try it Out – parents try out the SECURe strategy or activity at home; parents notice and keep track of how often they use the strategy and how it is going.
  4. Reflect – parents start the next workshop by reflecting on the effectiveness of the SECURe strategy, and sharing with other parents what did or didn’t go well during the month; then they begin the cycle again with a new Brain Basics and SECURe strategy.

The workshop structure was designed to give adults repeated practice in key EF skills such as planning, setting goals, problem solving, and reflection. Each month, the SECURe take-home strategy helps adults build additional skills with their children, including self-control, stress management, emotion awareness, and effective communication. These are transferable skills that are intended to support adults and children in multiple spheres of their lives. Thus, although SECURe Families focuses on parent-child interactions, the skills developed through the workshops can be applied to a much broader array of settings – including the workplace, financial planning, health decisions, etc. By engaging in cycles of planning and reflection, we hope to build sustainable habits that are transferred beyond the parent-child relationship to improve other aspects of low-income adults’ lives.

At its core, SECURe builds a set of meta-skills such as planning, reflection, and self-control – skills that support high-quality parenting but also transfer to other areas of adult life – serving as a central pathway to wellbeing and success.

Conversations during our pilot suggest that noticing and reflecting is hard: we don’t often make time to do it, and most of us need scaffolds to do it well. And yet, this appears to be an initial step in any behavior-related change. In human services work, we often make assumptions about what low-income adults can do without giving them the scaffolds to do it. SECURe Families tries to address this by creating tools to help parents notice and reflect on their own thinking, feelings, and behavior at home, and to use these reflections to inform parenting and use of SECURe strategies each month.

What did we learn?

In the 2014-15 school year, we simultaneously built and piloted the SECURe Families program with a group of families living in high-poverty and high-risk, urban, mixed-ethnicity communities. We collected data on the implementation and feasibility of the program, and feedback about its potential effectiveness to improve parent-child relationships and daily interactions in the home. The majority of family members reported that SECURe strategies were doable in their daily routines and were helpful for managing the challenges of parenting young children: 71% said they used the SECURe strategy every day or most days of the week, and 65% said it was helpful most of the time (the remaining 35% said it was helpful some of the time). All of the family members who gave feedback said they observed changes in both themselves and in their children as a result of the program.

In the voices of participating family members:

  • “Yes I love this program a lot because [it] help me [calm] down and my kids if we really upset.”
  • “The situations have change[d] from bad to better. We have more happy moments.”
  • “I have noticed that my stressed level change my physical body.”
  • “A lot has changes in my house hold in terms of how I handle and understand my kids.”
  • “It help me a lot because I can help my kids with their reading, homework, [and] understand how to relax and how to think.”

Conclusion

The US currently has one of the highest rates of childhood poverty of any developed country. More than 15 million children are living in poverty, and they are more than twice as likely as their more affluent peers to be exposed to multiple adverse experiences including trauma, abuse, or neglect[19][20]. Many poor children grow up with parents whose own experiences of childhood included harsh parenting, trauma, or abuse. There is a real urgency for family supports that directly combat this inter-generational cycle of poverty and stress that directly impacts health and development[21] [22].

SECURe Families gives low-income parents tools to manage stress, anger and frustration, and to engage productively with young children in difficult moments. Our aim is to infuse the family system with strategies that promote high-quality relationships and positive, skill-building interactions. While parents suggested the program was effective in reducing stress and promoting positive interactions with their children, the key take-away was embedded in the process: Notice à Reflect à Plan à Try it Out. We see this process as building a core set of meta-skills that are relevant beyond the parent-child.

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