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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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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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School Readiness Begins Before the First Day of Class: Strong Bonds Yield Strong Learners

"Every child needs at least one person who is crazy about them."
-Urie Bronfenbrenner

It’s back to school time, when kindergartners and increasingly, prekindergartners all over the country are shouldering their backpacks and heading off to school. The first day of school is important and nervous parents wonder if their children are prepared for the challenges ahead. But the first day of learning—when that child began preparing for the first day in the classroom—happened much earlier, on the day she was born. During the first three years of life, brain development happens at lightning speeds as foundations are laid for important functions such as hearing, seeing, language, thinking and reasoning, and regulating emotions. Long before a child enters a formal school setting, formative experiences have significantly shaped not simply what a child knows, but most importantly how that child comes to acquire knowledge and make sense of the world around him.

In my experience teaching preschool in Chicago community based organizations, conversations with parents largely centered on their concern for their child’s academic success. It was clear from these conversations that no parent wants his or her child to fail and shed light on how we can do more to help parents feel confident in making sure their children are prepared when they enter the preK door.

Parents across a spectrum of backgrounds would ask me for specific, actionable strategies they could implement to support their child’s academic success and ask questions such as, ‘Which literacy app will teach my child how to read?’ and ‘What brand of math flash cards do you recommend?’ This interest heightened once preschoolers turned 4 and were on the cusp of a grueling kindergarten application process. I applaud parents for seeking out advice on how to support their child, but the truth is that there is no prescriptive list of developmentally appropriate math games or literacy apps that are guaranteed to help their child’s learning. While a parent’s focus on learning strategies is certainly key to supporting a child’s early learning, their most important role starts much earlier—and may not be as complicated or require as much specialized knowledge as they think.

The content of what a child knows is positively impacted by the relationship that child has with learning itself.  And her relationship with learning starts with the attachment she forms with her caretaker as an infant. As the noted developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner stated: “Every child needs at least one person who is crazy about them.” It is within this relationship that early learning unfolds—and can become a source of joy. The best part for parents is that this early learning isn’t content-driven, but unfolds naturally during everyday moments. We acquire language when our caregivers talk about situations or objects encountered during the day; learn about colors when our caretakers describe favorite objects; and begin to understand counting while putting toys back in their box or totaling up socks in the wash. What we are really absorbing is how delightful it is to learn about what is around us.

Put simply, attachment theory says that infants develop secure attachments when a stable, nurturing caregiver consistently responds to their needs. The baby learns he can count on that person to always be there and he feels emboldened to explore the world around him because he feels rest assured that he can return to his safe base. It is through this secure attachment that the infant develops and maintains a sense of curiosity, confidence, and safety that stays with him through his toddler years and right into the classroom.

Early bonds shape learning behavior. Imagine a child who has a secure attachment with her parents, boldly going wherever her fancy takes her, and then imagine this same child at 3 years old navigating the preschool classroom. This strong foundation shapes how she engages with different areas of learning, such as: how she makes friends, resolves social problems, engages in creative concentration in the blocks area, or develops an ongoing scenario to act out and build upon in the dramatic play area.

So when parents ask me what activities, games or exercises their child should be doing, or to what books they should be exposed to, I can’t give them a definitive answer. What I can suggest is that they respond to their child’s assertions of developing identity with acknowledgement and affirmation. When children know they don’t have to choose between a parent’s emotional support and the exciting opportunities to explore something new, they are more inclined to reach out to the world around them. And when they do this, they operate with a greater sense of autonomy and learn new skills, and become confident young learners.

The question for the rest of us is how we can give all babies and toddlers the best start on a life-long journey of learning. That means advocating for public policies that that support parents and other caregivers as they give very young children the nurturing care and stimulation to become budding explorers and caring people. Here are a few: federal Paid Family Leave, to give parents and babies time to bond; home visiting for families who need parenting support; high quality child care, because that’s an important environment for relationships and learning as well; Early Head Start for families whose children face risks of falling behind; and early intervention for infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities to put them on the right track and minimize the need for special education later. The first day of school might become less anxious if parents have the support they need to promote their child’s development on the day learning starts.

On September 10th, help us remind Congress of the importance of investing in early learning opportunities for young children and that learning happens from the start!

Learn more:

Fae Rabin is a Policy Fellow at ZERO TO THREE.

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A Year After #Rally4Babies, Signs that Washington Increasingly Gets the Message

Congress returns to Washington today after the July 4th recess. The 2015 appropriations process for many programs serving infants and toddlers has hit the summer doldrums, with few prospects for speedy resolution. Still, with the first anniversary of the #Rally4Babies tomorrow (July 8), we should take stock of recent signs that Washington increasingly “gets it” that learning happens from the start—and so should our investments. Thinking about how that message has resonated should give us clues to how to keep the rally going.

Before the aforesaid appropriations process ground to a halt, the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education sent a clear signal that very young children were still very much on their minds—and their priority list. A proposed increase of $348 million for early learning included a $65 million bump-up (from $500 million in 2014) for Early Head Start (EHS)-Child Care Partnerships; an additional $100 million for child care; and an additional $100 million for preschool development grants. Consideration of the bill by the full Committee seems on long-term hold, and the House has yet to schedule any sessions on funding for these programs. While it looks like funding levels won’t be resolved until this fall or even after the election, we should take every opportunity to underscore the need to continue early learning funding momentum.

While this process plays out, we should celebrate two very real accomplishments regarding services for young children and families. One is the extension of the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program for an additional 6 months with a full year of money ($400 million). The other will send a lot of real dollars—500 million of them—to improve early care and learning experiences for infants and toddlers flowing down to communities later this year through the EHS-Child Care Partnership grants. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the application details in June. (Check ZERO TO THREE’s webpage for resources.) Buzz from the field suggests real excitement about this opportunity to change the way we think about the various settings in which very young children spend their days. Fundamental to this change is the understanding that babies’ brain development is molded by the quality of whatever experiences come their way—not by labeling a program as “educational” or just a “work support.” With 6 million infants and toddlers in child care, some for many hours a week, a lot of brain construction is going on in that space.

The importance of child care to infant-toddler development has not been lost of some Members of Congress. The Strong Start for America’s Children Act (S. 1697, H.R. 3461), introduced by Senator Tom Harkin (IA) in the Senate and Representatives George Miller (CA), Richard Hanna (NY), and Michael Grimm (NY) in the House, included an authorization for the EHS-Child Care Partnerships as well as the option for states to set aside part of the big PreK funding stream for infants and toddlers. Senator Harkin went especially big for babies with a $4 billion funding target for the partnerships (compared to $1.4 billion in the House bill and the President’s proposal).  The Senate also passed a reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant that created a 3% set-aside of funds to improve the quality of infant-toddler care, incorporating parts of Senator Al Franken’s Infant and Toddler Care Improvement Act (S. 1065).

In the past few months, two House Members have picked up the baton for babies. In May, newly-elected Representative Katherine Clark (MA) introduced as her first bill, companion legislation (H.R. 4680) to the Franken bill. In June, Representative Lois Frankel (FL) introduced H.R. 5000, which would provide $2 billion in mandatory child care funds to expand access to child care for infants and toddlers and authorize $500 million in discretionary funding for quality improvement activities. By singling out infants and toddlers, these bills show the message is getting through that quality child care matters when it comes to supporting the development of the youngest children.

So what have we learned since the #Rally4Babies? To be honest, we understand these are relatively small steps forward in light of the fact that almost half of all babies and toddlers live in distressed economic circumstances. But we also know we can make a difference. We need to celebrate the fact that early care and learning was a big priority in a tight budget year, and that a large portion of the increases went to programs serving infants and toddlers. This wouldn’t have happened without the thousands of signatures on the Baby Rally petition that generated almost 200,000 messages to the President and Congress or the phone calls to ask for cosponsors for various bills. Efforts to extend MIECHV on a “Doc fix” bill might have fulfilled the prophesy of mission impossible, but for these voices and the field’s tireless efforts to educate legislators on what home visiting means for parents who want to do the right thing in nurturing their children’s early development. While PreK still gets the most attention in the overall early learning agenda, the voice for babies has gotten appreciably louder. As this agenda has evolved, it has become more pointedly birth-to-five, and child care is becoming a more recognized part of the mix.  

What do we do next? More of the same. We can’t let our efforts, our energy, or our voices flag, even if immediate opportunities for moving forward don’t present themselves. Look for openings to contact Congressional offices. For example, ask your Members to cosponsor bills, identify legislative assistants who work on children’s issues and send information from your state about the importance of the first years for later success in school and life (stumped? try your state’s Baby Facts) or attend town hall meetings and ask questions about what policymakers will do to ensure our future workforce is prepared. Watch for alerts on Strong Start for Children activities in which you can participate and highlight the fact that learning happens from the start.  

The past year’s effort from the entire early childhood community has created a buzz about early learning that we can’t let diminish. We need to keep it up. Only then will advances in early care and learning policy move from being, in policymakers’ eyes, a nice thing we could do to being something we as a nation must do.

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