Frontiers of Innovation

Frontiers of Innovation logoFrontiers of Innovation (FOI) was the Center’s R&D Platform, designed to accelerate the development and adoption of science-based innovations that achieve breakthrough impact at scale. Launched in 2011 and sunset in 2023, FOI employed a structured but flexible framework that facilitated idea generation, development, implementation, testing, evaluation, and rapid-cycle iteration. This process was grounded in science and supported within a growing community of change agents who were committed to shared learning, cumulative knowledge, and transformative child outcomes at the population level.

FOI consisted of three primary components:

  1. Science that provided a continuous pipeline of discoveries and hypotheses (from the biological, behavioral, and social disciplines) that are communicated effectively for application in policy and practice.
  2. Intervention Strategies that were designed, tested, and refined through the IDEAS Impact FrameworkTM. They included small-scale pilots as well as strategies for increasing the population impacts of large-scale, evidence-based interventions.1
  3. A Learning Community that included people and organizations united by a common vision, engaged in shared learning to accelerate innovation, promoting early adoption of promising strategies, and testing pathways to impact at scale.

Science fed FOI’s intervention strategies with new insights and testable hypotheses about the causal mechanisms underlying the lifelong effects of adversity on the body and brain. Research conducted by the JPB Research Network on Toxic Stress, synthesis of current science conducted by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, and the work of affiliated faculty members and research partners of the Center on the Developing Child all contributed in important ways. FOI’s portfolio of intervention strategies used the combined efforts of these and other scientists in the FOI community to spark new, testable ideas.

Papers with sticky notes on a table, with several hands writing and pointing at various notes
Learn about the guiding principles of the IDEAS Impact Framework, as well as a set of three components that are created and revised within the approach.

FOI’s Intervention Strategies included a diverse portfolio of testable, on-the-ground pilots that have the potential to transform the lives of children and families facing adversity. When teams of researchers, practitioners, community members, and parents have identified unmet needs and were ready to co-create science-based theories of change that address the underlying causes of the identified challenges, they engaged with the IDEAS Impact Framework. This is a structured process in which the teams: (1) develop clearly defined intervention strategies and specified implementation materials; (2) use common measures and contribute findings to a common database; (3) embrace a segmentation approach that focuses on understanding what works for whom, in what contexts, and why; (4) test and iterate in a rapid cycle of learning and adaptation; and (5) connect to a growing network of other pilots and strategies.

Individuals and organizations that were engaged in the intensive development and piloting of intervention strategies using the IDEAS Impact Framework were linked through informal networks of innovation clusters. These collaborating partners shared common metrics through a centralized infrastructure. They consulted with FOI’s measurement and evaluation leadership group to ensure rigorous and productive application of the framework in developing theories of change, intervention materials, evaluation plans, and approaches to scalability. They also communicated with others across the FOI Learning Community on a regular basis.

The FOI Learning Community was a broader, multisectoral group of individuals and organizations, extending beyond the core network of sites and clusters that were engaged with the Center directly to use the IDEAS Impact Framework. This rapidly expanding Learning Community included both innovators creating new strategies and early adopters of promising models. It connected large service systems and small-scale programs. It provides an evolving infrastructure for a growing movement fueled by a new breed of investors and highly committed experts in practice and policy change, innovation methodologies, and translational science. Its membership came from a range of disciplines and sectors with a shared commitment to common principles, including:

  • constructive dissatisfaction with the impact of current best practices,
  • the use of science to develop new theories of change,
  • investment in shared learning and distributed leadership, and
  • a relentless drive to achieve nothing less than breakthrough outcomes at scale for young children facing adversity.

Frontiers of Innovation Projects

FOI was driving science-based innovation through a diverse portfolio of on-the-ground projects that formed a dynamic learning community. No two projects looked the same, but they shared a set of key approaches (see below) as well as an overarching theory of change. This theory hypothesizes that in order to achieve breakthrough outcomes for children, we must actively build the self-regulation skills, executive functioning, and mental health of the adults who care for them.


1The IDEAS Impact Framework is a joint initiative of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, the University of Oregon Center for Translational Science, and the University of Washington College of Education.

A coach filming a mother and children in a home setting. Photo courtesy of FIND.


Filming Interactions to Nurture Development (FIND) is a video coaching program that aims to strengthen positive interactions between caregivers and children. It uses select clips of adults engaging with children to reinforce developmentally supportive interactions, or “serve and return.”

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Learning Through Play

This intervention strategy utilizes games and play coaching to improve executive function skills in children. The Learning Through Play team has tested this intervention in a center-based, trauma-informed early education setting, where it also ran coaching sessions for adult caregivers on how to scaffold play and support children’s skill development.

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Two women and child looking through books

MOMS Partnership®

The MOMS (Mental health Outreach for MotherS) Partnership® is a multi-neighborhood, community-driven partnership that develops interventions to meet the mental health needs of under-resourced, overburdened mothers in at-risk neighborhoods.

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This project supports parents as they work with their children to build regular family routines. By focusing on real-life daily situations such as bedtime and mealtime, this intervention seeks to strengthen executive function skills in adults and children, while also increasing predictability within young children’s lives.

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The Intergenerational Mobility Project

By applying science to social service program design, the Intergenerational Mobility Project seeks to mitigate the effects of poverty and its associated stressors in order to support motivated low-income families as they work their way across the economic divide.

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Mexican Innovation Cluster

The Mexican Innovation Cluster leverages diverse experiences and perspectives to drive an ideation process rooted in both 21st century science and the lived experiences of the communities in which they work to achieve breakthrough impacts among children and families facing adversity.

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A mother and daughter play together as part of Programa BEM.

Brazilian Innovation Cluster

The Brazilian Innovation Cluster aims to advance an innovation agenda within the local ECD field and leverage the latest science to develop innovative program models with the potential for impact at scale in Brazil.

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