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New project aims to improve early childhood development outcomes

Plenty of groups say that improving early childhood programs is important, and a new initiative at Duke is doing just that.

The All Babies and Children Thrive initiative is a multi-million dollar fund aimed at sponsoring new research project teams to tackle a variety of early childhood issues, with the teams going through an application process to receive the backing.

“The goal is to fuel innovation in the space of prenatal-to-age-five care,” said Leigh Ann Simmons, chair of the fund's steering committee and associate professor in the Duke School of Nursing.

The ABC Thrive initiative will combine funds from the Bass Connections Challenge and a $2 million gift from the Sperling Family Charitable Foundation—founded by alumna and trustee Laurene Meir Sperling and her husband—to total $3 million. A faculty steering committee drawing from diverse disciplines will disperse the funds in seed grants to a range of research projects aimed at holistically improving outcomes for young children. 

As of now, the specific projects the initiative will fund has yet to be determined. Simmons explained that the faculty committee will receive letters of intent by Feb. 9 and official proposals a month later. The committee expects to announce which four projects will be funded and what the focus of the projects will be by early April. 

Each seed project will be completed within a year, at which point the four research teams will use the pilot information that they’ve generated to compete for one larger, $150,000 grant to fund a two-year project, building off the completed pilot. At the end of the three years, the process will start again. 

A broader goal is to start conversations that may not have happened before, between researchers and faculty that may never have thought to collaborate. ABC Thrive’s three target areas of study are community outreach, applied technology to achieve scale and prenatal and early childhood health and wellness.

The leaders driving the initiative want to compile ingenuity and specialization from across Duke’s systems and departments to achieve their goals. 

“We want to take the best of Duke, get collaborators together that might not have collaborated, and put those brilliant minds together,” Simmons said.

Given that there are such a wide breadth of programs targeting early life development—ranging from pediatric care to preschool education—that are largely dictated by public policy, it is a hope that the results of the initiative’s projects manifest in positive structural changes.

“Ideally, as a person interested in policy and as a scientist, all policy should be fueled by research,” said Simmons. “Part of the goal is to consider the policies and how we make decisions and [ask] are we doing it the right way. Would new information change our policies or approaches regarding [age] zero to three programs and early interventions? That’s a type of proposal we would definitely consider funding.”

The work that ABC Thrive will initiate aims to be as interdisciplinary as possible, reflecting the fact that prenatal-to-age-five development is truly multidimensional. Though the initiative’s title is child-oriented, Simmons sees the true focus as falling equally on the kids and their parents.

“This is about taking the best of Duke and connecting researchers who can help us come up with unique, innovative ideas for how to help kids and their moms be more productive members of society, and that’s what’s so exciting about it,” Simmons said. 


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