Design Principles for Community-Based Settings: Putting the Science of Learning and Development Into Action

Throughout 2020, the combination of COVID-19, the economic recession, and increased racial reckoning have further revealed the systemic inequities and injustices built into our current systems. Yet, these events have also demonstrated the resilience and resourcefulness of families and of the community-based organizations that work with them, in concert with and independently of schools.   

These forces cry out for a redesign and reimagining of all the systems that support our children and families and educate and prepare our youth. Developmental and learning science tell an optimistic story about what all young people are capable of. Because researchers know so much more about the brain and development than they did when the 20th-century U.S. education system was designed, we can now use this knowledge to not only redesign that system, but affirm a healthy learning and development ecosystem that fully acknowledges the role of families and communities as instrumental places for engaged learning. As learning is not simply content mastery or memorization but, ultimately, about meaning making—connecting new information and experiences to those that have come before—an awareness of what young people are experiencing in the broader ecosystem is essential.  

This playbook suggests a set of design principles that were developed by a group of educators, practitioners, scientists, and parents, building on the knowledge we have today and the contributions of many in the field to nurture innovations, new models, and new enabling policies. 

These principles are already being applied in places where innovative approaches to learning have taken root. In this playbook, we explore how these principles are the nonnegotiable starting points for community-based settings, including how these principles are being explicitly used to engage and validate learners who have been marginalized or “othered” by the traditional education system. 

Cheerful young woman laughs along with her husband or boyfriend while volunteering in a community food bank. They are sorting through food donations. Volunteers are working in the background.

Like Design Principles for Schools: Putting the Science of Learning and Development Into Action does for school settings, this playbook offers framing for how to think about these design principles in the context of the diverse structures and complex array of programs, organizations, and institutions operating in the “community” space. This includes both a typology for community-based settings and a comparison of this somewhat idiosyncratic array of settings to the more recognizable features and factors of the public education system. With the aim of promoting a more healthy learning and development ecosystem co-created by young people and adults across family, school, and community settings, we close with a discussion of the power of partnerships.   

In this playbook you will find: 

  • Overview of the Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole Child Design 
  • An Exploration of Community-Based Settings, including:  
    • Applying Design Principles in Diverse Settings 
    • A Typology of Community-Based Settings 
    • Common Elements that Vary Across Schools & Community Settings 
  • User Tips to the Playbook 
  • The Guiding Principles – Chapters that discuss the key principles and practices related to each essential component of whole child design. 
    • Positive Developmental Relationships 
    • Environments Filled with Safety and Belonging 
    • Rich Learning Experiences and Knowledge Development 
    • Development of Skills, Habits, and Mindsets 
    • Integrated Support Systems 
  • Levers of Change: Enabling Conditions to Accelerate the Implementation of Equitable Whole Child Design Across the Learning Ecosystem 
This research was supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. Additional support to create Design Principles for Community-Based Settings was provided by The Wallace Foundation and the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation as a project of the Forum’s Readiness Projects. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.