Executive Function Meeting of Experts

OPRE Executive Function Meeting of Experts
February 2, 2014
Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg


Thank you all for coming today. I want to begin with some pretty brief remarks, because I’m looking forward to getting started in the opening session. But I want to start with some quick background to let you know why we’ve been looking forward to today’s session and how it fits with the rest of the work at ACF.

First, as many of you may know, ACF has a strong research and evaluation component to our work, coordinated and implemented by our Office of Planning Research and Evaluation.

But, most of what we do at ACF involves our responsibilities for the federal role in operating a wide range of programs principally affecting low income children, families, and communities. Our program responsibilities include Head Start and Child Care, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, child support, the child welfare system, refugee resettlement, the unaccompanied alien children program, the Social Services Block Grant, the Community Services Block Grant, runaway and homeless youth programs, domestic violence program, marriage and fatherhood programs, the Assets for Independence Program, Low Income Home Emergency Assistance, and more.

In most cases, the programs themselves are run by state or local governments or grantees such as Head Start or community action agencies, and our responsibilities are to ensure that programs operate in compliance with federal law. But, in addition to ensuring compliance, we seek to spur innovation and improved performance through policy guidance, technical assistance, our research agenda, discretionary grants, and using the bully pulpit.

In practical terms, this means that we’re always trying to draw distinctions in thinking about what needs to be researched and evaluated, when do we know enough or think we know enough to point to promising practices or importance new directions in which to go, when do we seek to be directive and when do we principally want to encourage states and other grantees to experiment with a wide range of approaches.

For decades, ACF has supported research to identify more effective approaches to help low income and disadvantaged adults enter and succeed in employment, and to improve the effectiveness of early childhood programs. And, we’re funding a range of research initiatives relating to both.
In the last several years, we’ve been very aware of, and in some cases very involved in discussions about trauma affecting children and adults and the role of trauma-informed care; discussions about the impacts of toxic stress and the potential for strengthening the capacities of adults to prevent it; discussions about the importance of conceptualizing programs as two-generational, and the implications for program design; discussions of parenting, relationship education, the roles of non-cognitive skills, and, of course, the work around executive function. And, we’ve challenged ACF’s research staff to help us consider how these bodies of work do and don’t fit together, and what are the implications for programs, practices, technical assistance, and our research agenda.

We’re intrigued by the hypotheses that stronger attention to executive functioning could lead to better results in efforts to help adults succeed in employment, and that doing so could also improve their capacities to succeed in parenting, in relationships, in maintaining focus on goals and future planning, and in managing conflict and stress across multiple domains of activity. At the same time, many of us have really basic questions
--- is there shared agreement on what we mean by executive function?
--- is it one thing or multiple things?
--- is there agreement on how to measure it?
--- what’s known about how to improve it?
--- how are issues around strengthening executive functioning different for adults than for children?
--- how does expression of executive function interact with stress, depression, and trauma?
--- Is there evidence that generating improvements in executive functioning in fact translates to improvements in employment, parenting, or other outcomes?

So, we invited you all here today to help us in having this conversation, and to help us in thinking about next steps – for our research agenda, technical assistance to states and other grantees, and program and policy directions. From our standpoint, it’ll be tremendously helpful if we can make progress over the day in clarifying the questions, where there’s agreement, where there isn’t, and in getting your thoughts and perspectives on how to best advance knowledge and practice.

Before turning back to OPRE, though, I do want to emphasize that we’re seeking to situate this work in a broader context. We’re mindful that the challenges of entering and sustaining employment are partly about the characteristics of individuals and partly about the characteristics of the low wage labor market. We recognize that in low income families, the challenges of parenting are partly about the characteristics of parents and partly about the impacts of managing in conditions of inadequate income, and often in communities of poor schools and services, pervasive unemployment, violence and other stressors. We are not trying to suggest that the reason why child poverty is higher in the US than other developed nations is because adults here have weaker executive function capacities. But, we do think this body of work is important, promising, suggests some new directions for policy as one part of our overall efforts, and we look forward to today’s conversation.

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