Innovation & Application

Washington Innovation Cluster

In 2011, a group of state-level policymakers in Washington State came together to answer one question: How could they improve outcomes for vulnerable young children and their families in Washington? Inspired and energized by the Center on the Developing Child’s integrated science of learning, behavior, and health, the policymakers coined the term “one science approach” to coordinate efforts across systems, policy, research, and practice. One result was the Washington Innovation Cluster, where the Center on the Developing Child’s Frontiers of Innovation (FOI) worked with local partners in Washington to build a strong infrastructure to support science-based innovation and a continuous flow of new ideas into the early childhood field.

Since 2011, with support from the Gates Foundation, the Washington Innovation Cluster has played an indispensable role in developing, testing, and refining a new approach to program development and evaluation, which is now known as the IDEAS Impact Framework. In addition, there have been significant contributions toward building a dynamic and increasingly interconnected innovation system in Washington that is grounded in the science of early development and focused on putting that knowledge into practice at policy and program levels.

In 2016, the Washington Innovation Cluster expanded its membership beyond the initial five community-based sites and added new partners, including Best Starts for Kids (BSK), a six-year, publicly funded initiative investing in early intervention strategies that promote healthier, more resilient children, youth, families, and communities in King County, WA.

While the Washington Innovation Cluster is no longer a funded initiative, the work, relationships, and innovation mindset it launched and nurtured are alive and well. Currently, the Best Starts for Kids Innovation Fund supports 13 King County-based teams in applying scientific principles to their work with families. Through a robust collaboration with the Center on the Developing Child and local leads of the Washington Cluster, the Best Starts for Kids Innovation Fund grantee teams have been supported through an intensive, scaffolded process of innovation design. This process began with the grantee teams engaging in an IDEAS Impact Framework Multi-Day Workshop that was led by project leads from the Center, the University of Washington, and Children’s Home Society of Washington. The teams now receive ongoing funding and technical assistance to implement and evaluate their innovative approaches through December 31, 2020. A team led by Washington Innovation Cluster co-leads, Dr. Holly Schindler at the University of Washington and Jason Gortney of Amara provide technical assistance. The Director of Washington Frontiers of Innovation and leaders at Washington State agencies continue to spearhead inter-agency efforts such as the First 1,000 Days Initiative and the Fatherhood Summit that focus on better outcomes for young children and their families across Washington State.

Creating a Science-Based Policy Climate in Washington

Achieving better outcomes for children and families in Washington required FOI and local leaders in Washington to establish a policy climate where decision makers understood the science of early childhood development when allocating resources and implementing policies. To accomplish this, they needed to:

  1. build a foundation for systems and policymakers to make decisions and allocate resources that were informed by the science of early childhood development;
  2. create new professional development opportunities for state workers to learn and apply the science of early childhood development; and
  3. encourage cross-agency commitment, collaboration, and mobilization to support children and families facing adversity.

While stakeholders in Washington spearheaded much of this work, the FOI team worked with policymakers and state agency leaders to strategically deploy the scientific resources of the Center on the Developing Child in ways that best supported existing, local efforts to align policy and systems with the science of early childhood. Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., Director of the Center on the Developing Child, visited Washington State and provided legislative members, cabinet and deputy leaders, state agency leadership, and frontline staff with up-to-date knowledge about the science of early childhood development and ways to act on it.

Inspired by Dr. Shonkoff’s presentations, Washington policymakers passed legislation that supported children and families, such as a “Families First” budget that invested funds in early learning, and a bill that created the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), an agency focused on the well-being of children. Additionally, representatives from five state agencies (Department of Early Learning, Department of Health, Department of Social and Health Services, Health Care Authority, and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) committed to a shared understanding of the science of early childhood development and FOI’s approach to designing and testing new science-based strategies. As a result, the Department of Early Learning developed an executive function module that served as professional development for state workers. This module and the resources of the Center on the Developing Child continue to be used to educate and train not only agency staff, but also an increasing number of state workers, researchers, and community-based practitioners.

“Dr. Shonkoff and Washington’s long-standing partnership with FOI brought about critical shifts in mindset about child welfare’s role in prevention that were needed to revamp an outdated system through the lens of cutting-edge science.”
–Former Representative Ruth Kagi

One challenge in establishing a policy climate that understood and valued the science of early childhood development was the inevitable turnover of policymakers. To address this, the state created and funded two positions devoted to FOI’s mission: the Washington FOI State Director and the Program Manager. The inclusion of departments and budgets for funding innovation in state- and county-level initiatives also reflected Washington’s commitment to promoting innovation that benefited vulnerable young children and families.

Creating the Washington Innovation Cluster

In connection with FOI, policy leaders in Washington State recognized early on the importance of partnering with on-the-ground practitioners and university-based researchers to create and test new science-based strategies to improve outcomes for young children and families. After identifying top-performing programs and sites that also expressed a desire to innovate, FOI and the Washington Innovation Cluster leaders primarily focused on building a portfolio of projects—prioritizing projects that supported newborns, early social-emotional development and learning, and home visiting.

Within five years, the Cluster had conducted approximately 18 pilot studies across nine program sites that were linked to seven research institutions and a working group of program directors, managers, frontline staff, and senior advisors across multiple agencies.

FOI and program leaders soon recognized the importance of being as precise as possible in developing and evaluating projects. This led to the development of the IDEAS Impact Framework, which allowed project teams to go beyond asking if an intervention works and instead helped them ask how a program works, for whom it works (and does not work), and in what contexts it works. The Washington Innovation Cluster was instrumental in refining this new approach to program development and evaluation that is now employed across current FOI projects and offered through public workshops.

Not only did the members of the Cluster help FOI test and develop the IDEAS Impact Framework, but the framework, along with other tools and activities from the Center, also helped Cluster teams with their projects. For example, by utilizing the IDEAS Impact Framework, the Filming Interactions that Nurture Development (FIND) program team (which included home visiting program staff) identified the need to adapt the basic FIND program for low-income fathers. FIND with Fathers (FIND-F) was developed in response to challenges in recruiting, retaining, and supporting low-income dads through two of their home visiting programs in which 70% of enrolled families had a resident father but few were participating regularly. Creating the program’s theory of change highlighted the importance of coaching caregivers to wait for their children’s cues during serve and return interactions, a skill that requires practicing inhibition. Understanding this led the team to hypothesize that fathers who experienced high levels of adversity in their own childhood would benefit the most from FIND-F’s strength-based, skill-building approach. Findings from the initial pilot seem to support the team’s hypothesis: there were larger and more consistent effects for fathers with high ACEs relative to fathers with low ACEs.

During in-person meetings, the Washington Innovation Cluster project teams and partners analyzed, shared, and discussed what they were learning. State agency leadership and management were invited to the meetings to promote dialogue and idea generation and connect programmatic and systems-level innovation. For example, at one of these meetings, Washington’s Department of Early Learning (DEL) leadership was inspired by Cluster work to improve the quality of child care statewide by incorporating the FIND video coaching program in home visiting programs and a child care center. This project has now been scaled statewide.

Engaging in shared learning also revealed gaps and surfaced aspirations, leading to strategic shifts in the Cluster’s work and informing the need for new partners who:

  1. had capacity to reach larger numbers of children and families facing adversity;
  2. filled gaps in expertise and areas of program focus; and
  3. helped build collective knowledge about effective approaches and interventions for reaching underserved populations.

The Cluster brings together so many different people, and we all work together toward our common goal of improving outcomes for children and families—something we are all passionate about! In the Washington Innovation Cluster, every failure as well as every success is a learning opportunity. We all gain knowledge and ideas from each other, and every voice is valued.

This led to partnerships with BSK, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and Navos. Devoted to finding indigenous solutions to indigenous problems/issues, the Colville Tribes saw joining FOI as an opportunity to take a promising trauma-informed program and adapt it to meet the needs of a historically underserved community. Navos, one of the largest infant and maternal behavioral health providers in King County, WA, helped fill a critical gap in expertise—infant and maternal mental health—and leveraged their Cluster involvement to test the feasibility of delivering trauma-informed care in a group setting for the first time.

Washington was Frontiers of Innovation’s first Innovation Cluster. While the leaders and changemakers in Washington State were learning about the importance of early childhood development and science-based innovation, the Center and FOI leaders were learning about and changing the way they worked with remote partners. Keeping the successes and challenges of the Washington Innovation Cluster in mind, FOI has explored other partnerships with an emphasis on capacity-building and working with local leadership, which led to the formation of regional clusters in Mexico and Brazil and more recently the transnational Pediatric Innovation Cluster.

FOI was able to harness a will to change that resulted from work that had been done to spread the word about the Adverse Childhood Experiences study in Washington State. Policymakers, service providers, and community members were searching for ways to reduce adversity and its impact. The “one science” suggested concrete strategies for addressing ACEs, and Jack Shonkoff encouraged us all to look beyond the good work we were already doing and challenged us to seek “breakthrough outcomes.” We’ve since seen some significant shifts in policy and practice in alignment with the “one science.” Eight years after the launch of FOI in Washington, I work with people every day representing diverse communities around the state, who are intentionally applying that science and using the IDEAS Impact Framework to learn about what works for whom in which contexts.
–Jason Gortney, Washington Innovation Cluster co-lead

Programs in the Washington Innovation Cluster

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