New Project to Fuel Innovations in Early Childhood Development

The initiative will take a holistic approach to helping babies and young children get the best possible start in life

Leigh Ann Simmons, associate professor in nursing and faculty director for ABC Thrive, collects data on preschoolers’ social interactions. (Photo by Andrew Buchanan)
Leigh Ann Simmons, associate professor in nursing and faculty director for ABC Thrive, collects data on preschoolers’ social interactions. (Photo by Andrew Buchanan)

A new initiative at Duke University will take a holistic approach to helping babies and young children get the best possible start in life, focusing on their physical, mental and emotional well-being, as well as their environment and community.

All Babies and Children Thrive (ABC Thrive) was established by a $2 million gift from Duke alumna and trustee Laurene Meir Sperling and her husband, Scott M. Sperling, through the Sperling Family Charitable Foundation. The Bass Connections Challenge at Duke will add $1 million in matching funds for a total of $3 million.

ABC Thrive will bring together the latest research from basic, clinical and social sciences and share the information directly with parents, educators, health care providers and community stakeholders to positively impact outcomes for very young children.

“There are few places that research can make more of a difference than in helping children around the world get a good start in life,” Duke President Vincent E. Price said. “This gift from the Sperling Family Foundation will support interdisciplinary teams of experts across Duke to work toward ensuring that every child has the best possible beginning. We’re grateful for the Sperlings’ generosity.”

ABC Thrive will promote optimal development by focusing on three priority areas: prenatal and early childhood health and wellness; community outreach; and applied technology to achieve scale, with data analytics in each of these domains guiding the research.

Examples of potential collaborations include:

  • Interventions to improve infants’ socioemotional, language, cognitive and/or physical development;
  • Community partnerships to ensure the translation of new discoveries into policy and practice;
  • Developing technological approaches to mitigating risks for poor prenatal and early childhood outcomes.

“As researchers, we tend to view children in distinct parts -- their physical growth, their emotional development, their educational milestones -- rather than the whole child,” said Leigh Ann Simmons, associate professor in the Duke School of Nursing, who will lead the initiative. “The Sperlings’ gift will allow us to leverage the best of Duke to make meaningful differences in children’s lives by treating them holistically and in context.”

A faculty steering committee will consist of Duke University and Duke Health experts from a range of disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, sociology, environment, law, behavioral sciences, child and family mental health, medicine, biostatistics, bioinformatics, pediatrics, nursing, cell biology, neurobiology, immunology and molecular genetics. The initiative will provide seed grants to research teams. Proposals for the first annual round of funding are due March 9, with letters of intent due by Feb. 9.

ABC Thrive will also involve students through Bass Connections, in which faculty, graduate students and undergraduates form research teams to tackle complex societal challenges.

“There is an extraordinary gap between what neuroscience illuminates is best for young children and what trickles down into ordinary practice and care for 0-3 year olds,” said Laurene Sperling. “How we nurture the next generation from the start can have transformational results for us all. We are thrilled to support Duke’s unique interdisciplinary approach in seeking innovative solutions to closing this gap.”

Laurene Sperling graduated from Duke in 1978 with a degree in management science and accounting, and received her MBA from Harvard Business School. She chaired Duke’s Library Advisory Board from 2006 through 2010, serves as vice chair of Duke’s Board of Trustees and is an inaugural member of the Women’s Impact Network Leadership Council at Duke. She was also a steering committee member for Duke Forward, the largest fundraising campaign in university history, which ended June 30, 2017.

Scott Sperling is co-president of Thomas H. Lee Partners. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and serves as board chair of Partners HealthCare.

Two of the Sperlings’ four children graduated from Duke.