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Duke University research is building on its leadership in child and family policy by evaluating a comprehensive system of primary care for early education to improve children’s readiness for kindergarten.

Man, smiling
Kenneth Dodge

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced it will award Kenneth Dodge of Duke University a MERIT Award worth more than $8 million, to study how to prepare families and children for kindergarten readiness and well-being beginning at the stage of pregnancy of the child. Dodge is the William McDougall Distinguished Professor of Public Policy Studies, a leader in early childhood development and child/family policy.

Researchers cannot apply for a MERIT — Method to Extend Research in Time — award; rather, investigators are selected by the NICHD through an internal review process. According to the NIH, the objective of the MERIT award is “to provide long-term grant support to investigators whose research competence and productivity are distinctly superior and who are highly likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner.” The award will support five years of research and the opportunity to extend funding for an additional five years.

Dean Judith Kelley of the Sanford School of Public Policy highlighted the importance of the award and research.

“Ken Dodge is tackling one of the most important issues in the world: how to foster healthy environments for children to thrive and grow, so that they will be prepared to succeed. The MERIT award is a tremendous honor. The selection of Ken Dodge for this coveted award demonstrates the excellence of his entire body of research and the confidence that an institution like the NIH has in his lifetime of work,” Kelley said.

Jennifer Lansford, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, said this award is significant.

“We are thrilled to celebrate Ken Dodge’s many achievements and are delighted that his important impact on the lives of children and families has been recognized in this prestigious award,” Lansford said. “Ken envisions a future in which communities will provide systems of support to improve the well-being of children and families, which embodies the mission of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy.”

About the Research

Dodge, along with Ben Goodman, a research scientist at the Sanford School, and Professor Debra Best of Duke’s Department of Pediatrics are working to create and evaluate a novel comprehensive program of family primary care across the lifespan from pregnancy through kindergarten matriculation. In this program, professionals meet with families annually to understand their child’s developmental needs and refer families to community resources to address those needs. The new NIH award will test the impact of this research over the next 10 years, building upon his extensive scholarship in early childhood development and child/family policy over 40 years.

Through his previous research, Dodge has found that life success is better predicted by early social and emotional competence than test scores in reading and mathematics. With that knowledge, Dodge has created and tested classroom curricula in social emotional learning (SEL) and intensive early-intervention programs for disruptive students.

Ken Dodge presenting

Dodge also discovered and documented that learning starts at birth and that waiting until children are ages 5 to 7 to begin public education puts children and families at a disadvantage.

“This wait delays important learning. Waiting also exacerbates egregious disparities across race and ethnic groups,” Dodge said. “Learning must start early and be family-based with community support.”

In 2008, Dodge and Professors Robert Murphy and Karen O’Donnell of the Center for Child and Family Health created Family Connects, a universal, short-term, postnatal home-visiting program to support families in providing optimal learning for their young child beginning from before birth through kindergarten matriculation. Three recent rigorous evaluations show Family Connects reduces disparities in maternal mental health and child abuse investigations while improving outcomes for the full population.

Creating New Models

The NIH research will build upon this body of research, with the goal of creating a new way of primary care for early psychosocial education. The team will continue to work with community leaders in Guilford County, North Carolina, to create and test a novel comprehensive system of early childcare and education. The Get Ready Guilford Initiative (GRGI) aims to improve educational outcomes for each cohort of 6,000 annual births in this community by reaching every birthing family during the prenatal period, at birth, and then annually through kindergarten matriculation by helping parents support their child’s learning, assessing their needs, and connecting them with community resources to meet those needs. Nurses and education specialists will deliver age-appropriate visits to screen each child for cognitive and behavioral developmental delays and other family needs and strengths and then connect the family with community resources to address those child-specific needs.

Through the NIH award, Dodge will test the implementation and impact of this new system of care and education through a randomized controlled trial and a field study of scaled-up implementation.

“What I love about the award is that with this assurance of long-term funding we can dare to fail. We can innovate with our research, with the goal to create an intervention that helps families. This injection of support will help yield solutions and long-term findings that are urgently needed for families and communities,” Dodge said. “Now more than ever, families of newborns need support in getting off to a strong start, and we need interventions that help the entire population while simultaneously reducing disparities across race and ethnic groups.”

The intervention has been endorsed and supported by entities including Blue Meridian Partners and The Duke Endowment.

Rhett Mabry of The Duke Endowment said: “We are excited to learn about this distinctive honor for Ken Dodge and his associates at Duke University. The award is a well-earned reflection of Ken’s commitment to improving outcomes for children and families by using adaptive approaches and rigorous evaluation.”

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What I love about the award is that with this assurance of long-term funding we can dare to fail. We can innovate with our research, with the goal to create an intervention that helps families.

Kenneth Dodge