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Interactions drive development: What role can businesses play in supporting children in their earliest years?

Paul Carberry, Action for Children

Colleagues at Action for Children see on a daily basis how important the first years of a child’s life are to their development. Last year, we supported more than 101,000 people through our children’s centres and family hubs, of whom over 32,000 were aged 0 to 5.

Within the first year of life, babies’ brains double in size, and by age 3, a child’s brain is estimated to be twice as active as an adult. We know that a child’s relationship with their parents is hugely important to development in this time. So too are interactions that children have with other care givers, adults and children.

The earliest years are also a period where inequality begins to emerge. Research has shown that around 40% of the attainment gap at age 16 is already present at age 5. That’s why it’s so important that all areas of society contribute to supporting children and their families in the earliest years.

The role of businesses

Businesses should see themselves as part of the solution to making sure all children get the best start in life and ensuring they and their families are supported to be healthy, happy, and safe.

What does that look like? As employers, businesses should ensure they support workers through parental and family leave policies, through return-to-work approaches and flexible work offers. Managers should be trained and aware of the common challenges that parents face and be able to support new parents with empathy.

Businesses should also think about how they can support their customers and communities. That might mean making sure physical and digital spaces are child safe and friendly, or supporting customer service staff to be able to understand parents’ concerns or the problems they might face.

What can businesses do?

Crucially, businesses should pose themselves the question – what can we do to play a positive role in the lives of young children? When answering that they should work with and listen to children, families, and experts. As an organisation that works with tens of thousands of under-5s every year, we’d want businesses to think about three things:

  1. Supporting children in the early years is everyone’s business
    Businesses should see themselves as part of a wider social system that promotes the vital importance of the first years of a child’s life. That might mean doing some simple things, sharing information in staff areas or areas used by customers, providing some simple training to staff, or thinking deliberately about the way staff might interact with young children and their parents.
    Like all organisations, we know how hard it is to find time and resource for staff development in the current climate, so we’d encourage businesses to start with what feels feasible for them but can make a big difference for families. For instance, Iceland have created an emoji poster encouraging parents and carers to talk to their young children about their emotions and signposting to Action for Children’s Parent Talk Service for further support, with information and training for store colleagues. This will help to create family-friendly spaces, make sure parents feel supported and facilitate positive interactions in store.
  2. The potential impact of every interaction – ‘interactions drive development’
    Research into child development powerfully shows the importance of small interactions as well as connections and attachments. That might mean showing support for parents by letting them know you understand how important their roles are, enabling staff to be empathetic and understanding of the challenges parenting young children entails. It can also mean making sure that staff are supported to make the most of any interactions they might have with young children – sometimes thought of as ‘making every contact count.
  3. Children’s needs have become more complex
    Finally, it’s important that people interacting with parents and children understand that for many children and families their challenges have become more severe and complex since the pandemic. In part because of the direct impact of the pandemic on child development, as well as the challenges many parents face in accessing the support they need for them and their children. That’s important when thinking of what businesses can do as an employer in particular, but also when considering how to best support families as customers.

More than anything, if more businesses asked themselves that key question – what can we do to play a positive role in the lives of young children? – that would play an important role in creating the supportive societal approach we need to improve children’s lives.