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The Family Partnership: Leveraging a Two-Generation Approach to Improve Executive Function in Families

We know that families are the foundation of a strong and thriving community. Unfortunately, however, many factors such as living in poverty, absence of mental health care, and lack of educational opportunities can impede families’ wellbeing. The Family Partnership is a 142-year-old non-profit organization based in Minneapolis focused on closing the achievement and opportunity gaps for young children and families living in poverty. They work in three primary areas: counseling, education, and advocacy.

One of the many programs the organization implements to combat mental health barriers is School-Linked Mental Health (SLMH). This program is designed to provide high-quality therapy and diagnostic assessment in schools. The SLMH team works in tandem with student clients, their parents, and school staff to address mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, trauma, and general difficulties that might influence a student’s success in school.

The Family Partnership also provides high-quality therapeutic education for children as young as 6 weeks to 12 years old through their two nationally accredited centers, the Children’s First Early Learning Center (an anchor partner of the Northside Achievement Zone in North Minneapolis) and the Four Directions Family Center (serving mainly Native American children). Their educational programs utilize speech, language, music, and play therapy to enhance children’s growth.

By extending high-impact services and programs to children and families living in low-income communities around the Twin Cities, The Family Partnership seeks to ensure that everyone, regardless of racial/ethnic and economic background, is able to reach their full potential.

Two-Generation Approach:

One reason their programs have been so impactful centers around the two-generation approach. This approach highlights the importance of the whole family in creating better outcomes for both children and the adults in their lives. At one end of the continuum, the approach focuses on supporting children’s early development by targeting key child factors like access to developmentally appropriate toys. The other end centers on critical parent-focused elements which include workforce programs, childcare, and support for student parents. Although these two approaches are individually crucial to success, the magic happens when programs are able to integrate both approaches simultaneously – creating the two-generation approach.

In addition, the two-generation approach encompasses five key components: 1) Postsecondary Education and Employment Pathways, 2) Early Childhood Education and Development, 3) Economic Assets, 4) Health and Well-Being, and 5) Social Capital. All these components work together to improve both child and parent outcomes.

Executive Functioning Across Generations:

The Family Partnership recognizes the significance of executive function (EF) on a number of outcomes including academic achievement and healthy physical and social relationships. Championing the two-generation approach, Executive Functioning Across Generations is a comprehensive intervention designed to boost EF in children and parents. EF Across Generations has received support from a number of funders including the Sheltering Arms Foundation, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, the Medica Foundation, Harvard Center on the Developing Child, the Sauer Foundation, and the Minneapolis Foundation. The program has also attracted individual donors who see the development of strong executive function skills as crucial to a host of outcomes.

The program curriculum, developed by Dr. Christine Wing, is comprised of a child and parent component. The children’s curriculum, delivered in preschools, consists of daily lessons targeting knowledge and acquisition of brain science, learning words to describe internal thoughts and feelings, perspective-taking, “serve and return” interactions between caregivers and children, and personal narratives. Research has shown these skills are important to the development of self-awareness and EF. This is achieved through fun activities such as reading books and singing songs. Employing the two-generation approach, parents receive a curriculum of their own that focuses on supporting children’s language abilities and familiarizing them with the types of activities used in the classroom. The Family Partnership is also developing a home visiting adaptation to coach parents on the same set of skills being used in the centers and to encourage them to talk and engage with their children using those skills.

John Till, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Innovation at The Family Partnership, underscores the importance of the two-generation approach: “Many interventions only have an impact in one environment, such as a preschool classroom. But what if we could design interventions where the impact is felt both in the classroom and in the home and community? We think it is even more important to engage parents because children spend more time with their parents than they do in our classrooms. Imagine the benefits of executive functioning-focused learning in the classroom, reinforced by executive functioning-attentive serve and return interactions in the home with a caregiver? This is what we are working towards.”

Imagine the benefits of executive functioning-focused learning in the classroom, reinforced by executive functioning-attentive serve and return interactions in the home with a caregiver? This is what we are working towards.”

John Till, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Innovation

Dr. Amy Susman-Stillman, a Research Associate at the Center for Early Education and Development at the University of Minnesota, led the evaluation of the program. Early findings from this intervention are highly promising. Teachers report that children are highly engaged with the activities. They also discovered that children are more expressive of their feelings by way of effective communication. Parents have also noticed that children are bringing home the skills learned in the classroom. Mr. Till noted, “In the final session of the parenting curriculum component for Executive Functioning Across Generations, a parent told us that now when she feels stressed, her daughter reminds her to do her belly breathing. It is great to see a whole family effect in which what a child learns in the classroom transfers to the parent.”

To assess the impact more objectively, the Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFS AppTM) was used to measure children’s EF in pilot studies. In the most recent pilot study, children initially scored below the expected range for their age on the MEFS but significantly improved following participation in the program, scoring above the national average — a gain of 15.67 percentile points! Moderation analyses also showed that no matter how high or low children initially scored on the MEFS, they showed the same rate of improvement following the intervention.

4-year-old children’s performance on the Minnesota Executive Function Scale before and after participation in the 2Gen program at The Family Partnership.

Next Steps:

Based on these promising results, The Family Partnership aims to expand pilots of both the core curriculum and home visiting adaptation in programs across Minnesota. They are also currently working with statewide organizations across the US, including the Nebraska Children’s Home Society and Children’s Wisconsin, the statewide children’s hospital system in Wisconsin, to pilot the core model and a home visiting adaptation, respectively. Children and Families First of Delaware will pilot a parenting group adaptation. Finally, with all the uncertainty of the COVID-19 outbreak, The Family Partnership and two of its implementation partners are preparing to accelerate development of a virtual home visiting adaptation to ensure that home visitors have access to tools that are safe to use in this special period. The Family Partnership welcomes inquiries from organizations interested in improving EF in both children and parents!

Reflection Sciences has recently developed a FREE course for parents, Building Executive Function at Home with Children. For more information and additional resources, check out our Families Page.

About the Author:

Romulus Castelo is currently a first year Ph.D student in Developmental Science at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota. His research interests focus on the impact of early life adversity on the development of executive function skills. More specifically, he wants to investigate how social influences such as parenting may serve as a buffer for at-risk children and their families.,

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