Foundations for the best start in life

Ella Rhodes on a new British Psychological Society report on supporting children and families.

28 November 2020

Child poverty is on the increase with 5.2 million children expected to be living in poverty by 2022. As part of its Poverty to Flourishing campaign the British Psychological Society’s policy team and the campaign’s expert reference group has produced a report on how psychology can help to inform policies to support children and families.

The Foundations for the Best Start in Life report introduces two psychological frameworks – Maslow’s hierarchy of need and Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory of human development – and explains how these models could be used in developing policy to give children the best foundations for development. Maslow’s model emphasises that for people to achieve ‘higher level’ needs, including education and social mobility, their more basic needs must be met first. Bronfenbrenner’s model situates individuals at the centre of several systems, or environments, which children interact with and are affected by – including social structures, schools and peer groups.

‘It is crucial to address the reasons why people are in poverty. We need to address the impact of poverty, and concurrently intervene on the causes. This is the only way to see substantive change.’

The authors also highlighted the importance of promoting strong attachments in childhood, the role of adverse childhood experiences in later mental health difficulties, and developmental cascades – or the ways in which difficulties in childhood, including poverty, might interact and escalate through a child’s life.

‘To establish strong foundations, children need optimum psychological development and policy makers need a good understanding of the things that are harmful to children and young people’s psychological development and the things that promote it,’ the report states. ‘Services should be designed to take into account the psychological, emotional and wellbeing needs of the early years.’

A right to the best start

The authors made six recommendations, including a need to develop a comprehensive, cross-departmental anti-poverty strategy, to tackle poverty in a systemic way, and emphasised a need for collaborative and multiagency working and co-producing services with the people in communities who need them. They also highlighted the right of every child for the best start in life – enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – and pointed to the potential of universal programmes in schools. Local authorities should be psychologically-informed in their approach to designing early years services, and should protect services including children’s centres and family hubs.

Assistant professor of social psychology and member of the Poverty to Flourishing expert reference group, Dr Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington (LSE), has explored the impact of poverty on people’s sense of control through her research. She was keen to include Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory of development in the final report. While psychology may be thought of as a science of the individual, Sheehy-Skeffington said policymakers may not realise that psychologists often examine the individual in interaction with wider contexts and structures. ‘Some of the insights that come from that mean there are interventions we could do at higher levels than the individual – and that point is so often lost. It can be quite easy for us to see the scope for interventions, especially that psychologists can advise on, at the individual level like improving self-efficacy or skills. It’s sometimes harder for psychologists to think about psychologically-informed interventions at higher levels such as at the neighbourhood, local authority or society level.’

The current report attempts to address this by pointing out how policy makers should take a systemic, structural and yet psychologically-informed approach to addressing poverty, in order to increase access to societal and community resources that can create flourishing families and communities. Given psychologists’ knowledge about the importance of social status and social groups, Sheehy-Skeffington said psychologists were well-placed to consider the impact of wider society on the individual.

‘We know that a sense of exclusion and status anxiety matter, and that means we need to make sure that society, and social structures more broadly, don’t become so extreme or so unequal that people feel excluded or individual pressures to keep up. We know that in extreme inequality social comparison processes are more enhanced, and that really harms people who are the losing end of such comparisons. That’s why there’s a recommendation to think about things at the societal level such as inequality or political discourse that might demonise the poor.’

Sheehy-Skeffington said it was vital to take the context of poverty seriously to understand why, for example, those living in poverty may live more in the present than plan for the future. One way to do this, she said, was through experimental work. ‘You can manipulate the context and have middle class people experience it, and then show that in that context you would also choose something that bene ts you right now, or even behave in unhealthy ways, or report having lower health efficacy. I’ve used vending machine tasks in my research where people buy more unhealthy food from the vending machine if they have played a household budgeting game where they haven’t had enough money.’

By taking context seriously, Sheehy-Skeffington said, we can see the rationality, adaptiveness and resilience of many decisions made in a context of poverty which may be seen by some as suboptimal or irrational. She said that mainstream thinking about poverty would suggest poor people do unwise things because they lack the mental bandwidth or cognitive space to do otherwise.

‘I don’t think that’s going far enough. I think our psychology is adapting to the cues it’s getting about the kind of environment we’re in. And if we’re getting cues that our environment has scarce resources, is very unstable and unpredictable, and if we’re low in status and probably low in power, then the rational thing to do is focus on the here and now as opposed to the future.’

A lens of adaptiveness

Sheehy-Skeffington and Dr Jessica Rea (LSE) wrote a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on decision-making in contexts of poverty – cited in the Poverty to Flourishing Foundations report. This work involved 15 systematic reviews on the various psychological mechanisms underlying decision making and found that on most of those measures, including self-efficacy, cognitive functioning and aspirations, poorer people were faring worse than their richer counterparts.

However, by looking at these results through a lens of adaptiveness, Sheehy-Skeffington said, we may be able to reshape our thinking about these decision-making processes. ‘Imagine you decide to take on a high interest loan now, or you decide to like take up smoking now, both of which really harm you later on. But those things do serve important proximal functions in terms of being able to buy a school uniform for your kid or being able to get the stress relief that smoking a cigarette gives you in extremely stressful situations. We need to recognise those important proximal goals that are being served by people’s behaviours, because if you want to change someone’s behaviour, you need to nd something else that will serve that function too, as opposed to just trying to get everyone to focus on a future that they can’t necessarily count on.’

In the context of the Foundations report Sheehy-Skeffington said this work on decision-making was important for two reasons. First, there is some thinking that this focus either on the present or the future may emerge very early in life and depends on the cues you receive as a child about your environment. This may mean there is a small window of opportunity to encourage young people to consider the future impacts of their behaviour. ‘If we want people to be able to access some of the opportunities that are only possible to access through a mindset that is more focused on the future, we need to enable them to cultivate that mindset while they’re young, by providing a stable environment where they have reliable relationships, reliable living conditions and so on.’ At the same time, Sheehy-Skeffington points to research on the cultural psychology of social class that argues the onus shouldn’t always be on those from low income backgrounds to have the ‘right’ mindset; institutions designed by middle class people should also develop a more inclusive set of norms and decision-making frames.

The second important aspect of this decision-making research in early-years policy is related to parenting. ‘Often what happens with a focus on child poverty is everybody is all about the innocent children, the implication there is that it’s down to the evil parents. Even today in the news you see reports about children who were home during lockdown losing a lot of their skills – whether in terms of toilet training or holding pens – there’s this feeling of what were parents doing during that time? If you’re a parent on a very low income what you were doing was just trying to survive. I just can’t imagine what it’s like to have to be thinking about whether I can afford the rent while trying to deal with the stressors of parenting.’

Give people the cognitive and emotional space

Sheehy-Skeffington notes that previous conservative governments have been ‘quite warm’ to the idea of parenting classes, teaching mothers and fathers to be better parents. ‘I think this report pushes back on that a bit and says you need to give people the cognitive and emotional space to be the parents they want to be by lifting some of those pressures. It’s not a question of ignorance or needing to teach parents – it’s actually a question of creating an empowering decision-making context for them.’

Sheehy-Skeffington said that helpful policies would address aspects of poverty that can trigger a certain decision-making mindset – lifting scarcity by relieving financial constraints through policies such as free school meals, and giving people more stability and predictability in their lives through (for example) employment law mandating set working hours and income, and stable, high quality social housing. The ‘saliency of status’ also needs to be addressed. ‘The more we could do to equalise the experience of parenting, the better. I think Sure Start and children’s centres do an amazing job of that because provision is free, everybody’s going, because they’ve wrapped up midwifery care, neonatal care, stay and play drop-in and classes. It really is a place where everybody’s mixing and everyone’s there. And that’s an aspect that’s in the report – the good thing about universal provision is you don’t have the stigma associated with means-tested policies so as you access the service your disadvantaged status is not made salient; you’re accessing it as a member of society and as someone who has a child, as opposed to someone who needs to.’

Universal provision also enables mixing across social classes and across ethnic groups, which helps combat social exclusion. ‘The third reason these universal versus means-tested provisions are important,’ Sheehy-Skeffington said, ‘is because you then have a broader constituency that’s willing to defend the policy or the service, as opposed to it being something that’s for “them”. You can see that with the NHS – it is for everyone, everybody will defend it whereas housing bene t, let’s say, is seen as just for another group of people and that’s already a group of people who are marginalised from the political sphere so are less able to defend that policy.’ 

Read the paper now.

The BPS Poverty to Flourishing campaign has been extended until the end of 2021.
Two more reports, covering agency and empowerment and community-based approaches in the context of poverty, are due towards the end of January. If you would like to speak to the policy team or for more information email [email protected].

We are planning a special summer edition around the campaign theme. If you have ideas for topics or authors, please get in touch on [email protected]