Summer has officially arrived in the Green Mountain State. The mosquitoes are buzzing. Gardens are growing. Children are wrapping up their busy school years. And, working parents have turned their attention to summer camps. Transitioning from the structure of preK and school to the less-structured summer schedule is a big change in the daily routine, especially for Vermont families with young children.
Piecing together childcare, camps and other activities that don’t always correspond with a parent’s full-day work schedule can be a juggling act. And trying to find quality programs for children can be tough. But sometimes we need to look no further than our own backyard for quality experiences and learning opportunities.
Learning begins at birth
As I speak with people about the work of the Permanent Fund, I’ve noticed that the words “learning” and “education” can conjure up somewhat narrow definitions. Many people equate learning with cognitive skills like knowing the ABCs, colors, how to count to ten or tie shoes. And they usually connect education to the public schools—kindergarten and beyond.
But as I’ve written before, we know that learning and education begins the moment a newborn enters this world. The brain develops very rapidly in the first few years. And during this time, the child is not only building a foundation for future cognitive development, but also for social-emotional skills that will enable her to cope with life’s ups and downs.
These skills are developed through the interactions babies and toddlers have with their parents and other caregivers. The relationships that a child has during these early years are so important. Babies develop trust, empathy and self-esteem from positive relationships in their lives.
Serve and return interactions like talking, cooing and playing with babies provide the baby’s developing brain with the input they need and crave. They are forming 700 neural connections every second! Their brains are like little sponges working to soak up every experience and interaction to create the foundation for future learning and development. The quality of the environment that a child spends their time in can impact them greatly—positively or negatively. Children thrive when they have safe, stimulating places to play, grow and live.
Learning opportunities abound
While the older children are relishing in their new-found freedom from the academic demands of school, we know that learning never stops—even with the start of summer. So whatever the activities your summer includes, I hope it is filled with much fun, sunshine, laughter and learning with the children in your life!— photo credit CC via flickr: Matt Molinari
“Addiction is a preventable developmental disease that starts in childhood and adolescence,” reports the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). A quick glance at the research on addiction risk and protective factors available through NIDA and the Centers for Disease Control reads like an extended testimonial for quality early childhood care and education. That is the message the Permanent Fund’s Rick Davis and Julie Coffey of Building Bright Futures brought to to The :30 Show on WCAX-TV recently.
So much to say, so little time
Five minutes on TV goes by very quickly. This subject is worthy of an hour-long special, but that can be saved for a future blog post. Here are a few highlights of the WCAX interview, and the essential connections you want to hold onto for community conversations about early childhood and drug addiction.
Three critical early childhood and addiction connections
1. Brain development science from birth to age 5
2. Quality early childhood environments increase protective factors (and adverse experiences increase vulnerability to addiction and other health problems)
The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative has an extensive collection of resources on the physical and emotional links between early childhood experiences and addiction.
3. Poor early childhood environments increase risk factors and the likelihood of poor outcomes
There is a long way to go before every Vermont child has a safe, stimulating and nurturing early childhood environment from birth to age 5 — but there are some bright spots. As of January 2014, there are a few signs of progress:
- H.270, a bill to expand access to pre-kindergarten education
- Federal Race-to-the-Top grant to build capacity in Vermont’s early childhood system
- Additional funding for childcare in the new Pathways out of Poverty
- Early childhood action planning, following a statewide summit
Topics in Brief: Drug Abuse Prevention (National Institute on Drug Abuse)
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study (Centers for Disease Control)
For those of us interested in effecting positive change in systems for early care, health and education, there have been a wealth of research studies and reports released in recent months. Here are a few of those I found most valuable.
Children, dollars and sense
Researchers at the Brookings Institution recently released a brief estimating the cost and benefits of a “sustained approach to intervention” that goes from birth through adolescence. Specifically, they focus on interventions at four stages of life: birth, early childhood, elementary school, and high school. Based on evidence of real large-scale programs that have demonstrated effectiveness, the researchers conclude that the benefits due to greater academic achievement and adult outcomes (e.g., income) would outweigh the costs of investing in such a sustained approach.
Child Care Aware just released its 2013 update of their cost of child care report, which includes state-by-state data on average child care cost for infants, 4-year-olds, and school-age children in both center-based and home-based settings. Child care continues to be one of the highest budget items for families, rivaling college costs in some cases.
A team of researchers summarized decades of research on pre-kindergarten education in a recent paper from the Society for Research in Child Development and the Foundation for Child Development. The researchers concluded that large-scale, publicly-funded pre-k can produce both short- and long-term benefits. Key to getting such results include the quality of curricula and teacher-child interactions, the availability of effective coaches and mentors for pre-k teachers, the duration of services (number of hours and years) especially for low-income children, and strategic inclusion of family supports and comprehensive services. As part of the release of the paper, the New America Foundation organized a panel to discuss its findings and implications for policy.
The importance of the first eight years
The Alliance for Early Success, in collaboration with Child Trends, released a paper that lays out the research basis for focusing on the first eight years of life as a core strategy for improving outcomes for children and families. The publication identifies a number of research-based policy choices that state leaders can make in the areas of health, family support, and learning. It further lays out choices state policymakers can make regarding standards (for both children and services), screening and assessment, and accountability systems to promote effective program implementation. As a whole, this publication can help inform a comprehensive state strategy to build a strong foundation for success as children progresses from the early childhood to the early elementary years.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation also released a paper about the importance of the first eight years. The publication calls attention to data about the well-being of 3rd graders’ cognitive development, social-emotional development, engagement in school, and physical health, highlighting disparities among income and racial groups. It issues a call to action at both the federal and state levels in three areas: strengthening family supports; improving early care and education, K-3, health care, and other services; coordinating services for children from birth through age 8. Specific recommendations are offered under each of these three areas.
The Science Is Clear: Children Need Adults to Step Up
A popular song once asked – “What’s love got to do with it?” For those of us who are working to make sure that our youngest children have what they need, we need to ask a similar question: What’s adults got to do with it?
Recent groundbreaking research on brain development has shown us that children have a critical window in their brain development between birth and age five. Responsive and attentive interactions between young children and the adults around them during this period form strong neural connections and shape the architecture of the brain. This is why every single interaction with babies and preschoolers matters so much. Indeed, fostering strong development in those early years is vitally important to children’s success in life.
But the window doesn’t slam shut when children turn five.
The brain is still open to intervention and change throughout life, with some areas still maturing in the early 20s. That doesn’t mean we should wait until then. It just opens up a wider window and invites us to step in as soon as we can and go as long we can.
Research also says that the chain of adults who are part of children’s lives starting at birth can have a profound impact on what happens to children and how their lives are shaped. Instead of throwing up our hands in despair when confronted by the many problems that children face, we can instead direct a laser-like focus on the adults who touch their lives every day.
Video from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University
That is what the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and its Director, Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, are talking about in a compelling video (below) that offers a theory of change for children that we, as adults, can act on.
We all know that living day to day in toxic stress is not good for children: they do not do well in the midst of violence, neglect, hunger, and anxiety. But what we seem to have forgotten is that the toxic stressors that young children experience also can come from the lives of the adults in their communities: The skills that we know young children need to thrive are the very same skills that parents and caregivers and aunties and uncles and neighbors and family friends need (and may not have) to hold down jobs, to create stable routines at home, and to be there for kids when they cry, when they are angry, when they are asking questions, when they are looking for hugs, when they are unsure and confused, when they are worried, when they are sick, when they need something or someone and are not sure how to ask…..
Family stressors and the role of adults
While we need better policies to help remove all the stressors facing families and particularly those families who are very vulnerable and isolated and poor – what we must also do is help the adults better understand and take up their roles in the lives of kids. Many of us who are grown and doing well today grew up poor, living in less than ideal circumstances. But the adults in our lives – at home, at church, at school, and next door – never let poverty and bad situations define us. They shielded us. They encouraged us. They taught us. This is not impossible work; it is simply work we have forgotten how to do, were never taught, or tragically decided that we do not want to do.
Too often as a society we talk about how we want to “save” the children – but to do that, in addition to creating policies that make our community environments safe, stable, and enriching, we must be willing to “redeem” the adults in their lives, starting as early as possible and continuing through their 20s.
We invite you to think about how you and your organization are “redeeming” adults on behalf of young children. And if you are not, how could you?
What’s adults got to do with it? Everything…..
Building Adult Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes:
This post is part of a larger effort for the Children and Family Fellows Network’s #WhatKidsNeed campaign.
A Theory of Change