children in a circle being read to by their teacher

Smart from the Start

How can supporting families through crisis create lifelong learners?

Smart from the Start provides crisis intervention and stabilization services to families that are struggling in the Boston area. Whether those challenges are financial, social-emotional, or feeling disempowered, Smart from the Start places each unique family that they work with first. By helping families address their immediate needs, caregivers can then better support their children's healthy development and learning.

Of the 38,000 children age five or under that are estimated to live in Boston, about 28% live in households with incomes at or below the federal poverty line and almost half speak a language other than English at home. Programming to support parents and other adults as first teachers is important for all children, but especially for low-income and English language learners with limited access to resources who are struggling to address the multiple risk factors associated with poverty.

Launched in 2008, Smart from the Start, Inc. provides family support, community engagement, and school readiness programming with a goal to prevent the achievement gap among children living in Boston's most underserved communities. Smart exclusively serves the lowest income families in the city—the average income is under $10,000; at least half lack high school diplomas; 77% are unemployed; many are not native English speakers; and the majority of adults have experienced trauma. These are the families that are most in need of support and whose children are most at risk of toxic stress and significant developmental delays.

Smart engages community-based staff and other parents to connect families with resources (housing, job training, education, nutrition programs, etc.) to help them stabilize during crises and meet basic needs. Then it focuses on early language development to break cycles of generational poverty and chronic school underachievement.

While families may live with a host of social, economic, and emotional challenges, Smart from the Start recognizes that they also have incredible strengths and resiliencies. Its assets-based approach builds on their strengths and provides them with the tools, resources, and support they need to increase family stability and self-sufficiency. As Cherie Craft, Smart from the Start's Executive Director puts it, "by focusing on strengths and resilience rather than attempting to fix what's wrong, Smart is able to nurture trusting relationships with families who have been reluctant to engage in traditional services."

With programming in English, Spanish, Cantonese, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Somali, Smart from the Start's staff and parents engage the families most often in the shadows and helps them to gain confidence in what they do well rather than starting with what they do wrong. Smart from the Start then helps families to build on their strength, providing financial literacy training, prenatal programming, fatherhood programs, baby basics classes, welcome baby home visits, and toddler and preschool play-to-learn groups.

Smart from the Start has changed my life in many ways. It taught me how to be a patient parent to my children and gave me the confidence to spread my wings.

According to an external evaluation, over 80% of participating children are on track by age five on five school readiness indicators: communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem solving, and social-emotional development. In a recent reflection, a Smart parent of three young children shared, "Smart from the Start has changed my life in many ways. It taught me how to be a mother and patient parent to my children. Smart also gave my family opportunities that we would not have otherwise. Not to mention the confidence that I needed to spread my wings." Smart from the Start knows that all families want to and can be their children's best first teacher. And it's a model that works.

Smart from the Start is a family support, community engagement and school readiness organization that has as its mission to prevent the academic achievement gap among young children living in the lowest income families and communities. Smart empowers parents and caregivers in under-served communities with the tools, resources and support they need to break cycles of chronic school underachievement and generational poverty.

Additional Information and Resources

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    Toxic Stress

    Learning how to cope with adversity or stress is an important part of healthy child development. However, research shows that prolonged activation of stress response systems—or toxic stress—in the body and brain can significantly diminish healthy development. Additional information is available at the Center on the Developing Child's website.