The drumbeat is getting louder: public investments should focus on birth to eight – those crucial years when children undergo emotional, social, academic and neurological development that can prepare them for lifelong success.
Last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation weighed in on the birth to eight landscape in a KIDS COUNT policy paper, “The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success.”
“Behind a toddler’s soft features and halting first steps, an unseen, but extremely high-stakes, activity is taking place – the building of a brain,” the policy paper says. “What happens to children during those crucial first years will determine whether their maturing brain has a sturdy foundation or a fragile one.”
Ideally, these early years of brain development should be promoted through public policies and investments. But as Casey’s policy paper says, in these early years when children’s brains race ahead, federal funding lags behind. Federal spending is at its lowest when children are young; and since 2010, this spending has dropped and could fall to Depression-era levels.
The sad result is that too many young children don’t get the support they need. According to Casey’s paper, “by age 8, most children in the United States are not on track in cognitive knowledge and skills, and many lag in the areas of social and emotional growth, physical well-being and engagement in school.”
Only 36 percent of the nation’s third graders’ score are at or above average on math, reading and science assessments, according to a newly released analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal study. And only 56 percent maintain a healthy weight and are in excellent or very good health.
High quality early education and care programs can “contribute to the healthy development of young children, especially those who are in low-income families,” the policy paper says. “However, 63 percent of low-income 3- and 4-year-olds were not attending a preschool program, compared with 45 percent of their more affluent counterparts.” Rates vary “from a high of 78 percent of low-income children not attending preschool in Nevada, to a low of 45 percent in New Jersey,” where a court order has created more access.
Assessment scores, health status and preschool attendance tend to be worse for children from low-income families – and some 48 percent of the nation’s 17 million children are considered low income. The chances of living in poverty are highest in Mississippi and lowest in Massachusetts.
The Early Childhood Longitudinal analysis shows that “just 19 percent of third-graders in families with income below 200 percent of the poverty level and 50 percent of those in families with incomes above that level had developed age-appropriate cognitive skills,” according to a Casey Foundation press release, which adds, “This picture is particularly troubling for children of color, with 14 percent of black children and 19 percent of Hispanic children on track in cognitive development. Children who don’t meet these key developmental milestones often struggle to catch up in school and graduate on time and are less likely to achieve the kind of economic success and stability necessary to support a family themselves.”
“Fortunately, children who do not receive the stimulation and care they need for healthy growth and development can catch up if they receive appropriate interventions,” the policy paper explains.
What can be done? Casey makes three recommendations:
1. “Support parents as they care for their children.” Good examples of supportive efforts include home visiting programs and screenings for maternal depression as well as improved access to food stamps and employment programs.
2. “Improve access to quality early care and education, health care and other services.” States that haven’t already done so should adopt early learning standards, use Quality Rating and Improvement systems, and help parents make informed choices about early education and care programs. States should also provide voluntary, full-day pre-K.
3. “Develop comprehensive, integrated programs and data systems to address all aspects of children’s development and support their transition to elementary school and related programs for school-age children.” Children and families need “better integration and transitions among early education, K–12, health care and family support systems.”
Inspired by the Casey report, MassBudget (the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, home to the Massachusetts KIDS COUNT project) released a brief on the importance of mental health screenings for mothers and children that praises Massachusetts for its leadership in this area.
As local, state and federal policy makers press forward, Casey’s policy paper advises them to “look to the decades of evidence on best practices in early childhood fields as they advance their legislative efforts.”
It is evidence that can be used to “make the case for a comprehensive and integrated birth through age 8 system that ensures all children have a real chance to succeed and contribute to a stronger nation.”
The time to act is now.