When Connecticut’s new kindergarten class starts school in a few weeks, as many as a third of the children from the state’s poorest communities will be walking into their first classroom ever. Among their peers from the state’s richest areas, 97 percent will have attended preschool.
It’s a persistent gap that can affect a child’s success through school and beyond, and it widened from 2011 to 2012, according to Connecticut Voices for Children. The percentage of kindergartners in poor communities who had attended preschool fell from 69.5 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 65.9 percent in 2011-12. For children in wealthy communities the percentage rose from 94.9 percent to 97.4 percent.
And while the importance of kindergarten readiness is well known, child advocates are now pressing policymakers to recognize that the need for quality learning begins long before a child even reaches preschool age.
“There’s now this huge, mounting evidence base that shows that children who go to high-quality preschool programs, high-quality infant and toddler programs, do better in elementary school, middle school, high school, all the way through,” said Walter Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University.
Under-threes don’t necessarily need formal programs, but they do need a caring and stimulating environment to support their cognitive, emotional and social development. “The first and most important thing,” Gilliam said, “is a good solid relationship with a caring adult who’s available on a regular basis in the life of that baby.”
“The more we learn about brain research, the more we understand the ways in which children’s experiences in those earliest days are really shaping the foundation for their development throughout their lives,” said Jessica Sager, executive director of All Our Kin, a New Haven-based non-profit that trains and supports community child care providers. “Infants and toddlers can thrive anywhere as long as certain things are in place: Strong attachments, strong relationships, lots of love and nurturing, and lots and lots of joyful exploration and learning about the world.”
While those experiences and relationships start in the home, working parents need childcare, and the options are limited. “Connecticut has done a really good job of promoting access to and quality of pre-school, but our state really has not done much for infants and toddlers,” Sager said. “Overall, infant and toddler care is hard to come by, very expensive, and often not that great.”
Connecticut Voices for Children reports that the average cost for full-time infant or toddler care at a licensed facility was $12,973 in 2012. A total of 9,274 infants and toddlers received state-subsidized care in 2012, but that represents only 16 percent of the children under 3 whose families earned less than 75 percent of the state’s median income.
Child advocates are hoping that the state’s new Office for Early Childhood, established in June, will at a minimum help to coordinate the various initiatives and funding streams for babies and toddlers. At the federal level, President Barack Obama has proposed an ambitious initiative for the 2014 budget that would expand Early Head Start as well as successful home visiting interventions that help parents create positive early experiences for their children.
“What we know is that babies cannot wait,” said Judith Jerald, the senior director for early childhood at Westport-based Save the Children. “You’ve got to be early, you’ve got to be sure the services are integrated and comprehensive, and you’ve got to make sure you’re meeting the needs of the neediest.”
Save the Children’s Early Steps to School Success program is built around home visits: A trained coordinator helps the parent engage the child, whether it’s encouraging a 4-month-old to roll over or tossing a ball with a toddler. The coordinator also brings books selected to match the child’s needs. “The babies come running when they see the book bag, because they know that these books are going to stay with them all week,” Jerald said.
These kinds of investments in early childhood have been shown to be cost effective; U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan notes that studies show a return of seven dollars for every dollar spent on early education. “If we invest early, the dividends for society are tremendous,” he said, speaking in early July during the Rally4Babies, an online event to raise awareness about the needs of babies and toddlers. “Less dropouts, less teenage pregnancy, less crime, more high school graduates, more people working, more people becoming productive members of society.”
The rally, sponsored by the child advocacy group Zero to Three, featured Duncan, his cabinet colleague Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and a panel of child advocates. Sebelius was one of several panelists who referred to a landmark study showing that poor children hear an average of 13 million words by age 4, compared to 45 million words for children from wealthier families. “That’s a huge gap in language development, and that’s just one example of what could be missing by the time a child goes to school,” she said.
Gilliam, who is a board member at Zero to Three, noted that data on the importance of early childhood is driving policies around the world. “Other countries have been reading the American research and have been investing like gangbusters in early childhood care and education,” he added. “Notably, China has been making huge investments in early childhood.”
“These babies are full of potential,” said Jerald, from Save the Children, but the potential can be lost if the child does not get the right kinds of experiences. “You see this beautiful, beautiful baby and you see this child five years later and you say, what happened? There’s no reason this child should be a behavior problem, there’s no reason this child shouldn’t know their ABCs. It’s a terrible loss of human growth and power. They’re our future. We really have to focus.”