UCLA CDA’s Allyson Nesmith talks with NSCA member Rhonda Boyd, PhD, about how adults can support youth mental health and wellbeing.
What Lessons Have We Learned from Communicating the Science of Early Childhood?June 2, 2023
At our second annual Brain Development Symposium, science journalist Lydia Denworth spoke with Judy Cameron, University of Pittsburgh, and Phil Fisher, Stanford University, about their work at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, and the lessons they learned about communicating developmental science effectively to the public.
Effectively Communicating the Science of Adolescent Development
During the discussion, Judy and Phil shared their experience working with the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, a panel of scientists and researchers also known as the “Child Council.” The first question the council tackled was: What is the science of early childhood? And specifically, what science they felt was “ready for prime time,” that is, the scientific issues and knowledge they felt confident enough to share with the public.
“That took a huge amount of discussion,” said Judy. “It didn’t just happen in one meeting. It happened over years—2003, 2004, and 2005.” Talking (and sometimes arguing) about what was actually science and what was just opinion required a group with strong relationships who could trust each other enough to respectfully disagree.
After establishing which scientific understandings were ready for prime time, the group had to consider how audiences would hear and interpret the science they wanted to share, because people will understand information based on their own perspectives and experience. The Child Council partnered with Frameworks Institute, a non-profit institution based in Washington, DC, that studies how public audiences are thinking about an issue, how words are interpreted, and what might get in the way of the story you think you’re telling.
“They take a very scientific approach to figuring things out,” Judy said. “If we use these words to describe this science, how do people interpret them?”
Frameworks developed a variety of different ways to explain scientific concepts, working hand-in-hand with the council. Then, they tested these explanations with focus groups, asking participants to reflect back what phrases like “toxic stress” meant to them. “Instead of just assuming that people hear what you think you’re conveying, you actually got data back that told you how people were really interpreting what you were saying,” Judy explained.
For example, one lesson was how quickly statistics and information focused on problems can end up only communicating hopelessness. “What we’re describing are things that are otherizing the problem,” said Phil. “That is, ‘This has nothing to do with me. Why should I be concerned about it?’” So, part of the Child Council’s communication strategy was to give people a sense of agency and an understanding of what can be possible.
“So rather than talking about the hopelessness of the foster care system, or the impossibility of poverty,” said Phil, “talk about how a strong society is built on foundations of prosperity, and that there are things that we can do, especially early in life, that help ensure that all children have the optimal opportunity to contribute meaningfully to society.”
Once the Child Council knew what they wanted to say, and how they wanted to say it, they spread the word by making themselves available for every opportunity to talk about the science.
Both Judy and Phil emphasized the value in accepting every invitation to present to a group or organization about your scientific findings. “We took every single opportunity, and I think that matters a lot,” said Judy. “People have to know that you’re accessible, that you will come, and that you will deliver.”
A core principle of the Child Council was telling the story told by science, instead of cherry picking studies to make an ideological point. This became the “North Star” of communications for the Child Council and has made them a trusted source of information, with a better chance of bringing people together who might not see eye to eye in terms of other civic and social issues.
To wrap up the discussion, Judy and Phil emphasized the importance of always remaining open to feedback. “In spite of the very clear and effective strategies, there’s also an ongoing need to be very humble, self-reflective, and open to the feedback that’s being received,” Phil explained. At the end of the day, we must remember—communication goes more than one way!
Start by identifying the science that is “ready for prime time,” the scientific issues and knowledge you feel confident enough in to share with the public. This requires a group with strong relationships who can discuss and sometimes argue about what is actually science and what is just opinion.
Understand how your audiences will hear and interpret the science you want to share. People will understand information based on their own perspectives and experience. Partner with experts who study how public audiences are thinking about an issue, how words are interpreted, and what might get in the way of the story you think you’re telling.
Give people a sense of agency and an understanding of what can be possible. Often, statistics and information that can highlight problems end up communicating hopelessness. Make sure you’re communicating agency, systemic causes (and solutions!), and collective responsibility to address challenges.
Make yourself available for every opportunity to talk about the science. When you’re invited to present to a group or organization, find someone in your network, even if you can’t do it yourself. Being accessible and willing to deliver gets your message out and lets your audiences know that they matter.
Tell the story told by science. It can be tempting, especially in this polarized political environment, to cherry pick studies to make an ideological point. By staying true to the science, you become a trusted source or information with a better chance of bringing people together who might not see eye to eye in terms of other civic and social issues.
Always remain open to feedback. Communication goes more than one way. Stay humble and self-reflective about feedback from your audiences about messages that may have unintended negative consequences–even messages that once were effective may now hit differently.