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From Baby to Big Kid

An e-newsletter that showcases how children learn and grow each month from birth to 3 years. From Baby to Big Kid translates the science of early childhood and offers strategies parents can tailor to their unique family situation and to the needs of their child.
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Helping Parents Move Beyond the Word Gap

As I pondered the blog post to accompany the launch of Beyond the Word Gap,I kept returning to what this all means for parents. Learning to parent is hard work and parents are constantly faced with new information, new science, and new strategies to do it “better.” It reminds me  of when I brought my first-born child home from the hospital, put him down, and turned to my mother (my main source of parenting support), and said, “Now what do I do?” That seems to me to be the question parents might ask when they learn that the language their children hear as babies can affect their academic success later on. So I asked our amazing ZERO TO THREE parenting experts, Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian, to write about the Word Gap from the perspective of parents.

Patty Cole, Director of Government Relations, ZERO TO THREE


The “Word Gap” has come to symbolize the gulf that can separate very young children who have rich, regular opportunities for positive early experiences with language from those who do not. Science tells us that early language and literacy skills are some of the most important predictors of later success in school, and that as a group, children in families with lower socioeconomic means know far fewer words than their more privileged peers.

So how do we close the word gap?  By helping parents understand that the development of early language and literacy skills starts at birth, with babies’ innate drive to communicate—to let the trusted adults in their lives know what they need, think and feel.  Babies communicate from day one through sounds (crying, cooing, squealing), facial expressions (eye contact, smiling, grimacing) and actions (moving legs in excitement or distress, and later, gestures like pointing.) When the trusted adults in their lives respond to these signals, they are letting babies know they are loved and understood, which motivates them to keep on communicating.  That is the foundation of what leads to strong language and literacy skills.

Developing language and literacy skills is not an academic exercise that involves saying a certain number of words to children each day.   A robust body of research shows that strong language and literacy skills develop when, starting in the first days and months of life, parents and other trusted caregivers engage babies in back-and-forth communication, both verbally and non-verbally, as they play together and go through their daily routines. This helps children understand language in the context of their experience, which gives words meaning.  It is the quality of the child’s exposure to language, not just the quantity of words children hear, that makes a difference.

What does this look like on the ground?  A mother shows her 4-month-old a squeaky toy.  She talks about the noise it makes and how she is moving it closer and then farther away. At first, baby kicks his arms and legs happily, and reaches out to grasp the toy. Mom brings it close enough for him to grab and says, “Here you go! You want to check it out. How does it feel? What sounds does it make?” The baby looks at mom and smiles, and then explores the toy.  But after a few minutes, the baby turns away and begins to fuss. Mom says, “I think you’re telling me you are all done with Mr. Squeaky. Let’s put him away and have a cuddle.”  Or, a 15-month-old points at a tree as she takes a walk with her dad. Dad says, “You see the squirrel running so fast up that tree. He’s a speedy squirrel!  Run, squirrel, run!” The toddler looks at her dad, smiles, looks back at the squirrel and says, “Skerl.” Dad responds, “That’s right, it’s a squirrel.”

Parents today are stressed enough. For some parents, the worry is about having enough food on the table and adequate care for their children while they work. Others are highly anxious about giving their child a leg-up in the race to have the smartest kid who gets into the best preschool and the most prestigious college.  Parents from all walks of life tell us that the pressures of parenting often outweigh the joy.  So let’s not burden parents with the added worry that they aren’t saying enough words to their children every day. Instead, let’s focus on what really matters: tuning in to children; reading and responding sensitively to their cues—both verbal and non-verbal; engaging in reciprocal back-and-forth play and interaction; and incorporating lots of rich language into everyday moments. That’s what connecting—and communicating—is all about.

To learn more, visit www.beyondthewordgap.org.

Claire Lerner, Director of Strategic Initiatives, ZERO TO THREE

Rebecca Parlakian, Director, Parenting Resources, ZERO TO THREE

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Creating Equity of Opportunity Through Early Learning Policies

September, the month when we observed the importance of Hispanic Heritage, also saw a breakthrough in early care and learning policy.  House and Senate early education leaders forged a bipartisan deal on the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). The confluence of these two events started us thinking: Young children of Hispanic heritage are forming an increasingly large proportion of the infant-toddler population. Their importance to the U.S. now and as future workers gives us a useful lens for examining the child care bill (S. 1086). More opportunities for high-quality early care and learning experiences for this growing population could significantly influence the ability of young Latino children to reach their potential and contribute to our economy in the future. So shaping and implementing early learning policy could be a good way to create equity of opportunity.

Young Latinos are accounting for an increasing share of the overall child population—24% now and projected to increase to almost 36% by 2050. About a quarter of all infants and toddlers are Latino, and there are more than 5,000,000 Latino children under age 6—the primary customers for CCDBG. Many are considered at risk. About a third of these children live in poverty (although this rate has dropped from 38% as more Latino parents are able to find work). Latino parents are most likely to express concerns about risk factors for developmental problems in their infants and toddlers.

What this adds up to is a lot of parents who want the best opportunities for their children—and children who need early care and learning services that are not only high quality, but also culturally attuned and linguistically appropriate for dual language learners. Nationally, one in five children receiving federal child care services is Latino. But in 11 states, more than one in four children receiving subsidies is Latino, with Texas and Arizona hovering just under 50% and California and New Mexico surpassing 60%.

Given this lens, how does the new child care bill (expected to be passed by the Senate after the election) address the diversity of young children in America and what aspects should we keep an eye on? Overall, the bill pays some attention to the diversity of children and parents, but not the workforce providing child care.

Three areas jump out as having implications for Latino families and providers: consumer information to parents; annual inspections of licensed providers and at some point, of license-exempt providers; and training and professional development systems for providers.

Information for Parents and Providers: States will be required to make available a range of information for the consumers of care, i.e., parents. Some information is about providers, including the diversity of settings available, the quality of individual providers (if available in the state), and the requirements for licensing and background checks. The state must also make available information about research and best practices in early childhood development and policies to address “the social-emotional behavioral health” as well as expulsion of children from early childhood programs. Finally, the state must provide information on the availability of developmental screenings and how families or providers can access services. Some of these areas need careful explanations. For example, the idea of developmental screenings can make parents anxious, so information about how they help identify areas in which children need developmental support is important for accessing screenings and, even more important, following through with referrals.

It is critical that all of this information be available in forms that are accessible to Spanish-speaking parents and providers. To be sure, the list of activities for which the quality set-aside may be used includes providing training and outreach for engaging parents and families in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways. States should allocate some of their quality funds for this purpose—and for reaching diverse providers as well.

Inspections and Monitoring: Within two years, states will have to conduct pre-licensure and annual inspections of licensed child care providers. At some point (the bill leaves it to the state), they also will have to annually inspect license-exempt providers for compliance with fire, health, and safety requirements. While there are requirements that inspectors are qualified to assess compliance with regulations, there is no suggestion that they either reflect the diversity of providers or have any type of cultural competence to interact with providers of diverse racial or ethnic background. Now, it is true that the early childhood workforce is not as diverse as the children for whom they care, but diversity is increasing. Nationally, a little less than 20% of early childhood workers are Hispanic. But many more may be providing family, friend and neighbor care. In fact, Hispanic children are much more likely to be in informal relative care and much less likely to be in center-based programs. So in some states, cultural and linguistic attunement of inspectors could be a significant need.

Training and Professional Development: One of the most encouraging parts of the bill would require states to have training and professional development systems. These systems must provide for a progression of professional development that reflects research and best practices related to the skills necessary to promote the positive development of young children and helps improve the quality and stability within the workforce. The training and professional development is supposed to be, to the extent practicable, appropriate for a population of children that includes (among others) English learners (who are inherently dual-language learners). But there is no requirement that training be linguistically and culturally appropriate for a diverse group of providers or that they receive training that is conducive to cultural competence. 

After enactment, any implementing regulations or other guidance should recognize that the adult population connected to children receiving child care services is also diverse. In shaping their own policies, states—especially those with many Latino children as well as children from other racial or ethnic backgrounds receiving subsidies—should be mindful of both the diversity of the current workforce and the need to encourage more providers who reflect the diversity of the children served to enter the field. It will be up to advocates in the states to make sure that early childhood policy is informed not just by research, but by demographics.

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What the Poverty Numbers Say About Our Future

Today’s Census Bureau report on poverty levels in 2013 brought some good news about the state of young children in our country: fewer of them are living in poverty. Economic recovery is finally reaching more families. But the 2 percentage point drop should not obscure a fact that is often overlooked. Young children are the age group most likely to be poor. And as welcome as the decline is, the proportion of children starting out life already at risk for falling behind remains staggering and unacceptable.

Politicians often say that children are so important because they represent our future. Well, the Census Bureau report shows that a significant portion of that future is at risk because close to half of all young children (45%) live in families with income insufficient to make ends meet, that is, below 200% of poverty. (The poverty threshold for a family of four with two children is $23,834 per year, or $5,958 per family member.)

More than a fifth of that future—almost 23% of infants and toddlers—is spending its early years in outright poverty. Not only do we worry about the economic consequences of this number. But when we look behind it to see the much higher rates for very young children from racial and ethnic minorities, it offends our sense of justice as well. 44% of black babies and toddlers and 34% of Hispanic babies and toddlers live in poverty. Clearly, many young children in America do not start out with an equal opportunity to reach their potential.

Too often our political discourse brings children into the mix only in talking about the kind of world they will inherit, as if how we prepare them for that world is irrelevant to its ultimate shape. So we find ourselves asking the perennial question: What does it mean that almost one in four babies and toddlers in America live below the federal poverty line? And that almost another quarter live between that line of demarcation and 200% of poverty—the point below which economists find that families’ income can’t cover the necessities of life?

These young children are spending the most vulnerable years developmentally in circumstances rife with situations that place them at risk. They may lack access to adequate nutrition, live in unstable housing, divert critical body energy shivering in winter because there isn’t enough money to pay the heating bill. They are less likely to have access to enriching early learning experiences. Their parents may be stressed to the limit with the challenges of looking for or holding a job, finding and affording child care, and organizing their lives’ complicated logistics. This stress can affect the parent-child relationship that can buffer young children from the consequences of adverse experiences.  

The thread of stress woven throughout their lives is important, because chronic stress is a prime mechanism through which early experiences can undermine brain development. It is often described as “toxic stress.” In chronically stressed children, the hormones stress unleashes constantly bathe the brain, weakening its architecture. Early chronic stress has biological effects as it becomes embedded, not just in neurological development, but in the physical systems also developing rapidly in the early years, affecting immune systems. Poverty literally gets under the skin.

Children who start out in poverty are more likely to fall behind in their language development, lag behind in later reading proficiency, and experience learning disabilities and developmental delays. The effects of poverty and related adverse experiences can follow children into adulthood. Timing matters. Poverty early in life can have a particularly pernicious effect, reducing earnings capacity and hours worked and increasing the likelihood of obesity and other poor health outcomes.

Back to that future we’re trying to save for our children. Today’s infants and toddlers will be part of the core workforce at mid-century. And Hispanics—a third of whom are now being born into poverty—are projected to account for 80% of the growth in the workforce by that time, doubling their share of the total workforce. That workforce will need to be highly skilled to enable us to compete in the global economy. Children need to get a strong foundation now to make a full contribution later, when it is most needed. What today’s Census Bureau report is really telling us is that almost half of this workforce is starting life with at least some level of risk that they will not reach their potential.

Creating a Baby Blanket of Care: The really good news is we know how to help improve the odds for the children behind today’s income and poverty statistics. Just as we know from the science about the importance of development in the earliest years, so we know from program evaluation research about effective strategies to improve the lives of at-risk children and their families. Strong, nurturing relationships can help buffer children from the chronic stress. Proven approaches—some beginning during the important prenatal period—can help diminish the gaps and promote stronger social-emotional foundations. Economists estimate that for every dollar invested in early childhood programs, savings of $3.78 to $17.07 can be expected in future public expenditures.

The key to changing the odds is creating a “baby blanket” of care, building systems that reach all vulnerable infants and toddlers where they are: at home with parents or relatives, in formal and informal child care settings, or in comprehensive settings such as Early Head Start. Central to success is supporting parents in understanding the amazing power they have to profoundly shape their children’s development and the people they will become.

Here are some essential elements of a comprehensive policy for infants, toddlers, young children, and their families. Throughout, we need to ensure approaches are culturally and linguistically attuned and that infant-toddler professionals reflect the diversity of the young children for whom they care. (Read more in our federal policy agenda and the Early Experiences Matter Policy Guide.)

Paid Family Leave: By giving parents and newborn or newly adopted babies the gift of time together, we promote the most essential ingredient to success later in life, a secure, nurturing relationship with the adults in a baby’s life who care most about her.

Early Head Start—Families at risk, from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, benefit from this comprehensive platform for reaching infants, toddlers, and parents together, through multiple settings. A rigorous evaluation found positive impacts on children’s cognitive and language development, more positive approaches to learning, and fewer behavior problems. Parents were more involved, provided more support for learning, and had reduced risk for depression. Thanks to the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships, this approach will reach more young children, but still less than 5% of eligible children will be served.

Evidence-Based Home Visiting—Home visitors reach children and families in familiar surroundings where they are most comfortable and at a time when parents also offer a window of opportunity for learning about supporting their children’s development. Proven impacts have been found in child health, child development and school readiness, maternal health, reductions in child maltreatment, family economic self-sufficiency, positive parenting practices, and linkages and referrals. The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program, which has enabled states to expand and embed this approach within “baby blanket” systems of care,  is due to expire next March.

High-Quality Child Care—By not investing in quality care, we are losing a prime opportunity to boost the development of at-risk children who spend many hours in care while their parents work. Positive effects from high-quality care extend to areas of early learning, cognitive and language development, and school achievement, and can endure into the adult years. This level of quality is out of reach for the families whose children could benefit most. The reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant now moving through Congress will help improve health and safety as well as quality. But with the value of child care dollars eroding over the past decade, this sector of the early learning system needs a major infusion of resources to approach the quality children need.

Our national debate during and after this fall’s election doubtless will continue to be about war, reigning in federal spending even further, sequestration, and taxes—not children growing up in poverty. Federal funding for children is shrinking, a trend expected to continue for the next decade. Not every young children living in an economically disadvantaged family will fall behind. But we cannot afford to have so many children at risk if we want to ensure the vision of a strong national future comes true. When we fail to make sure one half of our future has the best possible start, the other half may find achieving a strong, competitive nation to be an elusive goal.

So will anything change? It is easy to become weary, because in truth, the proportion of infants and toddlers in poverty is similar to what we noted over 20 years ago. The understanding from the research about the importance of early development was summarized in the year 2000 in the seminal work, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, and has only deepened with advances since that time. And the policy prescriptions are similar as well, although we have made some heartening progress, including Early Head Start, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and MIECHV.

What feels different is that more people seem to be connecting the dots, as Nicholas Kristof did in his column last Sunday: that the prenatal period and experiences in the early years matter for a lifetime; that we need to look beyond simple one-shot panaceas to comprehensive strategies that value families and support the vital role parents play in nurturing children; that we cannot let up on quality from before a child is born until he or she heads off into the workforce; and that we actually know how to do these things if we can find the will to make the investment.

So, is this the time? Is this the time when we finally translate and scale-up what we know from the science into what we do through parenting, practice, and policy for young children and their families? Will we all come together and Rally for Babies?

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National Infant and Toddler Child Care InitiativeComing Together Around Military FamiliesNational Training InstituteEarly Head Start

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