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Teaching Social Policy

By John McDonald
Professor Rashmita S. Mistry, Vice Chair, Undergraduate Education

SEIS Undergraduate Class focuses on child development 

Professor Rashmita Mistry started teaching an undergraduate class at UCLA that examines connections between public policy and child development about 20 years ago as part of the Education Studies minor. 

“One of my motivations for this class has always been to help students to better understand and situate children’s development, inside and out of school,” Mistry said. “Schools don't operate in a vacuum.  Children are connected to families, families are connected to communities, communities are embedded within larger systems and societies.  Some of the big questions I ask in this course are, ‘Whose responsibility is it to raise children? What is our collective role in supporting families? How can we support and promote learning and positive educational outcomes for young children?’” 

Today, the exploration of those questions and more are part of an important course in the new undergraduate major in the School of Education and Information Studies, Education and Social Transformation.

“At a macro level, we're examining and exploring the set of social safety net provisions in the United States and the adequacy of those for really supporting families and children's development,” Mistry says.  “We also interrogate why our system of social safety net provisions looks the way it does in comparison to other peer countries, and are we satisfied with what we see.” She challenges her students to think hard about why the social policy landscape in the U.S. looks the way it does in terms of the systems, supports, and investments in young families so that they understand that policies are dynamic in the face of social, political, and economic forces. 

“A big question I try to get the students to take on is, how does our system align with the scientific evidence we have for what promotes children's development and well-being, and how do we move the needle in a direction that better supports children’s development, especially those whose families are more vulnerable and marginalized and in need of more support?”

The class, “Topics in Child Development and Social Policies” explores the societal contexts that shape the development of children, including their cognitive, academic, social and behavioral development, and their physical and mental health. With a focus on the lives of children at home, in early care and educational settings, and at school, the course examines how social policies shape and affect the quality of children’s experiences, paying attention to what children need to grow and thrive, and examines how and what policy-makers can and should do to meet the needs of diverse families and children in the United States. 

Part of a suite of courses in the Education and Social Transformation major, the class is designed to help students think about social and educational policy as essential tools for social transformation. Other courses emphasize connections between education and law, and early childhood education and policy. The classes also examine comparative educational policies and practices outside of the United States. 

Collectively, the courses in the major help students develop a broader perspective about the issues that confront children and families and a sense of the levers needed for social change. Students have the opportunity to develop an understanding of the science of learning and human development, the ability to interpret social data and research needed to critically evaluate research studies, and to apply their understanding toward solutions to specific problems. 

Mistry’s course focuses on a child’s first five years and stresses the critical importance of this developmental period for children’s longer term outcomes. She explores issues ranging from low birthweight and nutrition to child care and early education to childhood poverty. Students delve into key issues, developing a policy brief on a specific topic. They look at the research, learn about the problems, and then share their ideas and strategies for addressing them.

“I really have them dig into this and then bring it all together,” Mistry says. 

A key element of the course is learning to clearly communicate about policy. Professor Mistry wants students to be able to understand and digest the science that underlies conversations about policy, and be able to communicate the science in a way that is much more accessible to a broader audience.  

“Science is just one part of a system that informs how we do policy work,” she says. “You have to both know and understand the science, but then think critically about how to disseminate and talk about it with different audiences. How can we really leverage that science in a way that policy makers are going to want to listen to and hear?

“The other thing we talk about is that a policy brief – like the policy itself – is not neutral. It has a stance and a position. You are advocating for developing, improving, or changing a policy, increasing funding for a policy, or tweaking it to better support children’s development.”

This past year, amid the pandemic and political division, the course added a focus exploring the impact of COVID-19 on children and families. The election of a new president also spurred ambitious new proposals to address the needs of children and families through the Build Back Better initiative, adding to the discussion. 

Mistry and her students dug into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and families and policy actions that aimed to intervene and address the impacts, especially among those children and families that were most vulnerable due to systemic racism and poverty. They also took a close look at the American Rescue Plan and related policies such as the infrastructure and tax bills.  

The election of President Biden and the roll out of the Build Back Better plan was also a new and exciting focus.

"These are all the topics we talk about in the class. There was so much momentum,” says Professor Mistry. “This past fall, the class talked generally about social safety net programs, but also delved into conversations about the childcare tax credit, the earned income tax credit, and the notion of a child allowance or child support payments, and what that looks like in other places. They talked explicitly about family leave and parental leave, and about universal pre-K and better supports for early care and education. 

“This class maps on to exactly where we are right now in terms of our social policy landscape. There were times this fall where I felt like I couldn't have planned any better, because as the conversations and discussions were happening in Congress, as the infrastructure bill was getting negotiated, as the reconciliation bill was getting negotiated, these were all the things we were talking about in class in the moment,” Mistry said.  “And students were learning about it in real time. They were learning about the evidence base and support of certain positions and policies as those policies were getting negotiated.

“I think what excites me about this class, is that it’s not about education per se, but that students learn all the ways in which things that happen outside of a classroom have bearing on a child's capability and ability to take up the learning opportunities that occur in a classroom setting. By the end of the class, they can identify policies, but they have learned so much more. They can think about their own relevance to kids and reflect on their own lives and the lives of others around them to make these connections for themselves. 

“I think as educators that's really our goal. We want to be able to communicate information, but ultimately, we want students to take it up in a way that is going to be meaningful and relevant for them, so that they can carry it forward."