Building Adult Capabilities

Science tells us that it is never too late to help adults build up their core capabilities, and that we can have a life-long impact if adults support the development of these skills in childhood. When adults have opportunities to build the core skills that are needed to be productive participants in the workforce and to provide stable, responsive environments for the children in their care, our economy will be stronger, and the next generation of citizens, workers, and parents will thrive.

The brain is dynamic and changes according to what we do and experience, and the impact of experiences is greatest when specific regions of the brain are still developing. However, the prefrontal cortex is still sensitive to experience in adulthood, and the adult brain is still able to build the complex networks required for executive function and self-regulation. Although there is age-related decline, when it comes to performance, these skills and the brain regions that support them are malleable, and can strengthen depending on how much they are practiced. Research consistently shows that the prefrontal cortex can be changed well into adulthood.

How Can We Build or Restore These Core Capabilities?

Photo of father holding hands of toddler daughter
For tips and more on building adult capabilities, see our guide for practitioners.

Building the core capabilities of adults is essential not only to their own success as parents and workers, but also to the development of the same capabilities by the children in their care. Doing this successfully requires two approaches:

Environmental Approaches

What changes can we make to programs and services that will create a less stress-inducing environment for people whose core capabilities are challenged? How can we provide positive opportunities to develop and practice those skills?

  1. Reduce the ways in which systems and services that are designed for adults in poverty overload and deplete their self-regulation skills.
  2. Pay attention to the style of interaction between caseworkers and those being served.
  3. Incorporate tools and techniques that help people take greater advantage of available services and build core capabilities.
  4. Use service delivery infrastructure to relieve key stressors in families’ lives by filling basic needs.

Animated GIF: Two approaches can reset the balance of self-regulation in adulthood

Individual Approaches

By focusing on real-life daily situations such as bedtime and mealtime, the Ready4Routines intervention seeks to strengthen executive function skills in adults and children, while also increasing predictability within young children’s lives.
By focusing on real-life daily situations such as bedtime and mealtime, the Ready4Routines intervention seeks to strengthen executive function skills in adults and children, while also increasing predictability within young children’s lives. Learn more

At the individual level, what can we do to help adults who have faced adverse conditions throughout their lives build their self-regulation and executive function skills?

  1. Provide training in specific self-regulatory and executive function skills aligned to the environment and context in which they will be used.
  2. Teach strategies for reassessing a stressful situation and considering alternatives.
  3. Teach strategies for recognizing and interrupting automatic responses, such as intense anger or frustration, to give more time to activate intentional self-regulation in stressful situations.
  4. Strengthen intentional self-regulation through specific training techniques that target the skills that can override automatic responses, such as helping adults identify their own motivating goals and support their pursuit.
  5. Create a “multiplier effect,” in which helping adults see how small actions and successes will make a difference leads to a reinforcing cycle of positive emotional responses.

Learn about some of the programs and initiatives that are focusing on building adults’ core capabilities.

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