“The Room to Grow Model: Closing the Opportunity Gap for Young Children in Low-Income Families” is a Columbia World Project that aims to expand and promote a unique program model that was developed and is implemented by the non-profit organization Room to Grow. The model offers structured coaching and community connections to support parents during the first three years of their children’s lives, as well as material goods for their babies.
Columbia World Projects is supporting a small-scale randomized controlled trial (RCT) that is evaluating the Room to Grow program in New York City. The data provided by the study will deepen the understanding of the combined value of parenting education and material goods that the Room to Grow model provides, and may eventually help guide policy decisions and private philanthropy in this area. Later proposed phases of this project would enhance and scale the Room to Grow model, expanding the organization’s strategic growth plan and creating plans for how it could be expanded with government support.
In this interview, Akilah King, the interim CEO of Room to Grow; Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia’s Teachers College and Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and National Center for Children and Families; and Christopher Wimer of Columbia’s School of Social Work and Center on Poverty and Social Policy, discuss what makes the Room to Grow model stand apart and what this Columbia World Project aims to achieve.
What excites you most about the proposed version of this Columbia World Project, which would expand Room to Grow and replicate its model around the country?
AKILAH KING: We have families and toddlers running through our hallways every day. We know there’s something special about what we’re doing and have always talked about bringing it to more families in New York, Boston, and hopefully beyond. I think this partnership really affords us the opportunity to turn that into a reality – maybe sooner than we thought. I think the sense of hope and knowing that we have some of the brightest minds right alongside us is a fantastic opportunity. And we want to make sure that we do this right. We’re not claiming that Room to Grow can solve all the world’s problems, but we’re dedicated to being hopeful that we can move the needle in whatever way we’re capable of and this partnership supports us in becoming the best version of ourselves. We’re always continuing to improve ourselves, and knowing that we have Columbia and this team that believes in us is definitely more of an incentive to do that.
What’s unique about the Room to Grow model? What does it offer parents that they couldn’t find somewhere else?
KING: We combine parenting coaching and education while also providing families with material items that can offset hardship. And, from what I know, we’re the only organization right now that combines those two different types of supports. There are many great organizations and nonprofits that are doing really deep counseling and coaching, working with parents, and providing strategies; and there are others that are doing tremendous work providing baby goods to families in need. Room to Grow combining these supports is worth more than the sum of its parts. The families we work with don’t have to worry about getting clothes on their child’s back, which frees up their mind to engage with the coaching and support their child’s development.
JEANNE BROOKS-GUNN: Having evaluated and developed several national programs for low-income families with young children, I was thrilled to be asked to work with Room to Grow. Room is unique in combining financial support with parenting information and referrals. Low-income families’ financial concerns are not addressed directly in other early childhood programs. Such concerns often make it difficult for parents to focus on their children’s needs for nurturance and learning opportunities. Offering material support helps parents, reduces stress, increases the availability of toys and books and provides an opportunity to talk about the causes of financial hardship (housing, employment, food). Room to Grow gives mothers permission to talk about some of the barriers to financial well-being.
CHRISTOPHER WIMER: I remember doing one interview with a mother, and we were talking about material hardship and the woman stopped in the middle of the interview and realized she needed to put at least $5-10 on her utility bill so it didn’t get cut off the next day. The bandwidth and the resources it takes to do that is where most parents who are struggling with finances are going to put their first priority effort. If you’re consumed with that and facing those challenges it’s hard to focus on parenting that supports child development.
What does the data you’re gathering through this RCT have the potential to tell us in the short and long term?
WIMER: There really is no data out there on the kind of approach that Room to Grow is taking: trying to tackle both parents’ financial needs and their parenting and development goals at the same time, as well as connecting parents to valuable community resources. We’ve been studying more than 300 families since 2017 for this RCT, tracking the kids from infancy through age three and a half.
If we have really solid evidence that this is an innovative approach that works for families and children, that should be really important for convincing policymakers and skeptics that you can make a difference in the lives of low-income families and children, and for building the case for dedicated funding for programs that combine parenting and financial support for families.
BROOKS-GUNN: We are collecting measures that have been used in other early childhood programs to measure parenting practices, maternal mental health and stress, use of referrals to other services in the community, as well as financial well-being. That means that our data will be comparable to other interventions that focus primarily on parenting.
Program evaluations are useful not only to see if a particular intervention approach works. Evaluations can be used, when information on implementation is collected, to think about how a program might be improved. So for example If we get positive impacts for certain outcomes but not others, we can consider whether some program changes might be called for. I’m always interested in how we can use evaluations to make programs better.
Can you explain how this data will be linked with New York City administrative data?
WIMER: We will get mothers’ consent to link their children’s data with their eventual Department of Education records, to understand some of the longer-term effects of the program. With that consent, we can eventually get access to things like test scores and grades. New York City collects a lot of really great data on kids throughout their progression through the school system. That will allow us to track the children in our study well beyond when the program ends.
How has Room to Grow shifted since the pandemic, both in terms of what you’re able to provide families and what families seem to need?
KING: Our families are low-income. Which means that, on top of the increased emotional stressors from COVID-19 and the additional racial unrest in this country, they're more likely than higher-income families to be deeply affected by any decreases in income that they may be seeing in their household. And what we’ve heard from our clinical teams is that our families are really in need of food, diapers, formula and activities to engage their kids with at home, while everyone is under the same roof and stuck behind closed doors.
We transitioned to virtual programming in March, so what that looks like is our clinicians are engaging with families over the phone, over Zoom, over FaceTime, and we are able to dive into the issues that we usually do. We’re finding that we have the same strong bond that we always have. Additionally, we’re meeting some parents for the first time who maybe typically are working and can’t make it to the in-person sessions, and we’re also getting a little sneak peek to see what it’s like inside their homes. We also find that people are coming ready to talk, and they really want to jump in to talk about their child’s development. We’re closely monitoring our outcomes, because that’s going to be the big question: Were we as effective in this period?