- Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University - https://developingchild.harvard.edu -

Alberta Family Wellness Initiative

All across the province of Alberta, Canada, people are talking about early brain development. They work in government, health care, mental health, addiction treatment, and early education. They live in cities, suburbs, oil boomtowns, and Indigenous communities. Together, they are making changes based on their understanding of early childhood and brain development that they believe will improve the well-being of all Albertans. This phenomenon did not happen by accident.

In 2007, Alberta was facing a now all too common health crisis—increasing rates of substance abuse and addiction and mental health issues among its residents—combined with a lack of adequate comprehensive, integrated programs to address these issues. In searching for information that could help address these issues and achieve population-level change, leaders of the Alberta-based Palix (formerly Norlien) Foundation discovered the scientific knowledge about early childhood development on the Center’s website. “We believed there was a connection between childhood experiences and later adult health outcomes, but was there science to validate that?” recalls Nancy Mannix, chair and patron of the foundation. “When we found this work, it was a foundational piece of what we needed.”

Charlton Weasel Head, Associate Principal of Kainai High School in Cardston, Alberta, completed AFWI’s Brain Story Certification course to help teachers and staff better understand and support First Nations students affected by toxic stress and the intergenerational effects of residential schools.

Mannix also recognized that sharing that message with all of the people in Alberta who play important roles in addressing the crisis—policymakers, researchers, practitioners working in the medical, mental health, and social services fields, educators, and more—would be very challenging because these fields were extremely siloed. Another obstacle was lack of public belief in the connection between early childhood development, experiences, and relationships with lifelong learning, behavior, and health. To take on this seemingly uphill battle, the Palix Foundation created the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI). Since its founding in 2007, AFWI has become a driving force in Canada and beyond for using what we know about early brain development to address a range of community challenges affecting both children and adults.

How has AFWI done this? Through a strategy they call “knowledge mobilization.” Much of AFWI’s work has focused on providing the infrastructure and facilitation to bring together practitioners and policymakers from across Alberta with scientists from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and other experts to enable them to collaborate and develop science-based, innovative solutions for the fields of health, justice, education, and human services. This program has involved cohorts of hundreds of Alberta’s leaders and encompassed several conferences and symposia, including the 2013 “Accelerating Innovation Symposium: Telling the Brain Story to Inspire Action.” At this event, AFWI facilitated the formation of Innovation Teams, which brought the challenge of translating knowledge into action back to participants’ own work priorities and agendas. Through knowledge mobilization, AFWI has trained an “army” of change agents who continue to share the message of the importance of early childhood development with their communities and who are transforming the ways in which they and their colleagues work.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child member Judy Cameron presents at the 2013 Accelerating Innovation Symposium.

Special Relationship with the Center

AFWI and the Center on the Developing Child began partnering in 2008, and AFWI then became part of the growing Frontiers of Innovation community. The Center had published a series of working papers on early childhood development and had worked with the FrameWorks Institute, a communications research firm, to develop a “core story” of brain development. This core story translated the science of early brain development into a compelling narrative that could help public policy leaders in the U.S. apply the science to important decisions.

AFWI recognized the potential impact of this science for Alberta and worked with FrameWorks to research how Albertans might think about it differently. Together, they uncovered some important distinctions, particularly with how Albertans—known in Canada as a conservative province—view solutions for mental health issues. Where Americans lean toward finding private solutions, Albertans believe in an interdependent approach that involves families, communities, business, and government. Using this context-specific understanding, AFWI and FrameWorks revised the Center’s core story to become the “Brain Story” in Alberta.

AFWI’s video, Brains: Journey to Resilience, presents the concept of resilience and the resilience scale in a humorous, down-to-earth, yet scientifically accurate way.

The Brain Story has been the fuel behind AFWI’s major initiatives to educate Alberta’s political and systems leaders, practitioners, and the general public about the importance of early development, relationships, and experiences on lifelong learning, behavior, and health. This work has encompassed an extensive portfolio of activities—from producing new multimedia products, to creating professional development resources, to gathering change agents together through events, and more.

In a true example of distributed leadership, AFWI has expanded the impact of the science of early childhood development in Alberta in ways that the Center alone could not have achieved. Working together with the Center and FrameWorks, and through its network of change agents, AFWI has taken the science, adapted the messaging for the people of Alberta, and shared the Brain Story widely across the province to drive real change—and the results are beginning to become apparent in both policy and practice. “Those brain-to-policy implications are quite well understood within the government of Alberta,” says Shannon Marchand, Deputy Minister, Community and Social Services, “which I think speaks to the success the Foundation has been having.”

Here are just a few examples of the impact AFWI has had:

What We’ve Learned

At a Grande Prairie, Alberta community event, residents learn about the effects of genes and experiences on brain development by playing the Brain Architecture Game.

Population-level change does not happen overnight. AFWI has made significant efforts to evaluate its progress to date and to learn from its experiences so that it can adjust and adapt its strategy for later phases of its work. Some of the lessons learned so far include:

Other Key AFWI Projects

Among the materials AFWI developed for the core story tool kit was a video explaining the Brain Story entitled, How Brains Are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development.

Core Story Tool Kit—To support the change agents being cultivated through the knowledge mobilization program, AFWI developed a library of helpful resources, including videos, presentation slides, learning cards, and posters for sharing the core concepts of brain architecture, serve-and-return interaction, toxic stress, and executive function skills.

Brain Story Certification Course—AFWI developed this free, online professional development resource for anyone working in the health, human services, education, or judicial sectors. In addition to the core concepts of the Brain Story, the course develops an understanding of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), addiction treatments, and mental health interventions.

Change in Mind: Applying Neurosciences to Revitalize Communities—This three-year initiative (a collaboration between AFWI and the U.S.-based Alliance for Strong Families and Communities) was designed as a “learning laboratory” for testing and evaluating how the latest advances in neuroscience can be applied to drive policy and systems change. Fifteen sites from across the United States and Alberta province, varying in size, service orientation, population reach, and sphere of influence, were selected for the Change in Mind cohort. Through convenings, webinars, technical assistance, and tools, cohort sites were trained in the science of early childhood development, communications framing, innovation, and applying the science to policy and practice.

The Brain Architecture Game—In a collaboration between AFWI, the Center on the Developing Child, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, the University of Southern California Media & Behavioral Health Center, and FrameWorks Institute, the Brain Architecture Game was developed as a tool to help policymakers, community and business leaders, health and education service providers, and government officials understand the science of early brain development. The hands-on, interactive game allows participants to build brain structures based on foundational principles of neuroscience and see how they are influenced by environments and experiences.