Can Love Close the Achievement Gap?

The Boston Basics is a series of evidence-based parenting principles designed for children under the age of 3.

A father sits with his son on the carpet and looks at him lovingly while the child stares at a snack.
Tara Garcia Mathewson

Seat-belt use in the United States rose from 14 percent in 1985 to 84 percent in 2011 thanks, in large part, to a massive ad campaign promoting the practice. Even now, with “buckle up” warnings far less prominent, seat-belt use continues to rise.

Ronald Ferguson wants to see a similar trend with the use of five evidence-based parenting principles dubbed the Boston Basics: maximize love, manage stress; talk, sing, and point; count, group, and compare; explore through movement and play; and read and discuss stories. Ferguson is the director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University and the lead creator of the Basics, which experts agree are most important for children from the time they are born to when they turn 3. For much of his career, Ferguson studied educational achievement starting in kindergarten, but when he learned that gaps based on socioeconomic status and race were already stark by the time children turn 2 years old, he decided to broaden his focus.

Generating support in Boston for the Basics has not been difficult: Scores of nonprofits, government agencies, and other community-based organizations have agreed that there is value in teaching the principles. What remains unclear, however, is whether the Basics will help close achievement gaps in practice. Broad support for the concept, in theory, may not yield a meaningful, educational result.

But Ferguson and other participating leaders are hopeful.

A two-day conference back in 2011 with parenting and child-development experts from all over the country helped define the five Basics, which were later refined based on the work of a national advisory committee and feedback from parents. The effort’s scope is citywide rather than limited to a single neighborhood and has focused on leveraging existing relationships with hospitals, community organizations, and social-service nonprofits to reach new or expecting parents. Ferguson hopes the effort will lead to a cultural shift, much like the seat-belt campaigns did in the 1980s and 1990s.

The advice to “maximize love, manage stress” tends to be one that strikes a chord with parents, many of whom are advised not to hold their babies too much or coddle them as they become toddlers. “This concern about spoiling babies is pervasive,” Ferguson said, “whereas the sense of safety and being loved is foundational for later development.”

Some parents are afraid, especially with toddler boys, that if they give their children too much affection when they are young, they will be weak. The Boston Basics tells parents that is simply untrue. Ferguson said this can be especially important when it comes to developing executive-function skills in children. Those who get a strong sense of safety and love from their parents are better equipped to control their own behavior later on and develop intentions they then follow through on, skills that are important for academic achievement.

Since the Boston Basics Initiative’s outreach work officially launched in the fall of 2015, more than 100 organizations across a number of sectors have expressed interest, including health centers and hospitals, workplaces, faith-based organizations, schools, museums, libraries, community centers, childcare centers, housing developments, homeless shelters, and retail establishments. (Several early adopters, when contacted, were hesitant to make introductions with the vulnerable populations they serve.)

So far, the Boston Basics Initiative has produced series of five short videos about each principle, along with an overview of all five, in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole; it also published booklets describing the Basics. From there, partners are free to decide how best to use the resources, and they all seem to be incorporating the Basics into their existing work a little differently.

At Boston Health Care for the Homeless, Aura Obando, a physician, has started hosting discussions with families in shelters and hotels in the greater Boston area, screening videos and discussing the parenting tips as a group.

Many of Obando’s patients have young children, and many of those children have developmental disabilities. The value of distributing the information in the Boston Basics through existing channels like this one is clear.

“It’s such a logical connection for us to be using these videos,” Obando said. “It’s like the perfect audience.” And Obando said families have been happy to find the Basics particularly approachable—it doesn’t cost extra money to count trees or houses while walking to the park, for example.

Ana Reinoso Aquino has created a one-on-one course for parents interested in learning the Boston Basics through her work with the Martha Eliot Health Center. Over three one-on-one sessions, Reinoso Aquino explains the five principles and how parents can implement them at home, and in a final session, parents have to demonstrate they can apply what they learned with their child. At the end, Reinoso Aquino hands over a certificate of completion and, when possible, board games or books to support family communication and interaction.

The varied-distribution models will undoubtedly influence how big an impact the Boston Basics have on caregiving. Programs that give parents information, supplementing what they know about child-rearing but leaving the hard work of changing behaviors to them, often fail. Parents, especially parents in poverty, simply have too many competing demands on their time.

But agencies that help parents develop new behaviors and routines with the Boston Basics in mind could make a real difference. Reinoso Aquino’s request that parents incorporate the Basics into their parent-child interactions to earn a certificate is one strategy for doing this.

Ferguson also hopes multiple exposures to the Boston Basics will encourage parents to adopt them. If they hear about the Basics in the hospital, then during doctor visits, then in church, and also at the museum, the constant reminders may help achieve behavior changes.

The more people who get involved in the Boston Basics Initiative, the more ideas there are for disseminating the five principles across a larger swath of the region. And the goal has always been saturation, not simply targeted interventions in low-income communities or communities of color. The effort isn’t about fixing bad parenting strategies among the nation’s disadvantaged; it’s about distributing information that is universally useful. Everyone can learn something from it.

Sarah McLean, who works for the education consulting firm Education First as part of her doctoral program in educational leadership at Harvard, found herself taking feverish notes the first time she heard about the Boston Basics while facilitating a conference at which Ferguson also spoke.

As the parent of a 2-, 4-, and 6-year-old, McLean said she thinks about the Boston Basics every day—reading to her children at night, keeping her toddler engaged during car rides instead of giving him food or letting him watch television. And while she thinks of herself as progressive when it comes to approaching gender stereotypes, the Boston Basics have also made her realize she treats her toddler son differently than she did her older two daughters. She expects her toddler to get up after a fall, whereas she might have scooped up her daughters and comforted them, something more in line with the “maximize love” concept.

Adults tend to parent as they were parented, she said, a cycle that often has no reason to be broken.

“We can’t shed the bad and keep the good if we don’t have some sort of disruption of how this could be different,” McLean said. “The Boston Basics really offers that.”