Experts are focusing more money and attention on the health of young children in Connecticut in an effort to prepare them to be successful in school later on.
The efforts include developmental screenings at child care centers, home visits and information hotlines for parents, better collaboration with pediatricians and more support for preschool staff members dealing with emotional and behavioral issues.
The idea is that if a child’s basic health needs aren’t met, he or she won’t be able to keep up with academic and social expectations in school.
“There’s been a huge interest in addressing early childhood development with the understanding that’s where we get the most bang for the buck,” said Lisa Honigfeld, the vice president for health initiatives at The Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut.
In the last 10 years, there has been “an explosion” of federal funding for early childhood initiatives to get children on track early and prevent spending on remediation down the road, Honigfeld said. In December, President Barack Obama hosted a White House Summit on Early Education.
In Connecticut in 2014, the legislature approved the Office of Early Childhood, which combines services for children ages birth to eight. The United Way has been running the Child Development Infoline to provide free information to parents and caretakers and private foundations are funding many early childhood health initiatives.
Several early childhood initiatives stem from a concern for educational goals, but many have shifted to focus on health needs such as nutrition, dental care, and more frequently, mental health issues.
“This idea of health used to be really around your blood pressure or do you have a fever,” said Hector Glynn, the vice president of programs for The Village for Families and Children, a Hartford agency that has several early childhood and prenatal programs. “Now the concept of health is so much broader.”
A look at children’s health measures – such as obesity levels, asthma rates and birth weight – show that there is room for improvement in Connecticut.
Almost a third of Connecticut students in kindergarten and third grade in 2010-2011 were overweight or obese, according to state Department of Public Health data. Connecticut has a higher childhood asthma rate (11.3 percent) than the national average (9.4 percent), according to a 2012 state report on asthma in Connecticut. DPH stats show 7.9 percent of children born in 2012 were considered low birth weight.
Doctors also report that mental health issues are increasing among young children.
“When I started practicing, I might see a case of some behavioral health problem one time every six weeks,” said Dr. Gerald Calnen, who was a pediatrician in Enfield for 38 years. “By the time I retired, I was seeing two to three cases a day.”
Poor academic performance in children is often linked to health and emotional problems, Honigfeld said. A 20-year study released in July showed connections between positive social development in kindergartners and their likelihood of graduating high school or college and becoming employed as young adults.
“We recognize children arriving at school not ready to learn largely have health problems, largely have social-emotional problems,” Honingfeld said.
Influx of Money
That’s why 14 foundations formed a collaborative in 2011 through the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy to direct money toward a comprehensive early childhood system.
They’ve pooled about $400,000 since 2011, and individual foundations have given $25 million to early childhood causes in the same time period, said Maggie Gunther Osborn, the president of the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy.
The William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, a member of the collaborative, has been giving early childhood education grants through its Discovery Communities program since the early 2000s. Last year, 53 communities received an average of $50,000 each, said Nancy Leonard, the public policy program officer for the fund.
In 2009, the fund offered several grants for communities to start focusing on children’s health issues, resulting in long-term plans. Through its plan, Enfield and the Key Initiatives To Early Education (KITE) group hosted a forum for all Enfield pediatricians in 2010.
“We talked to them about developmental screening,” said Calnen, who is a member of KITE. “Turns out, as important as it is, nationwide too many pediatricians aren’t doing it. We wanted to find out why that was and how we could encourage the pediatricians to do them in their office.”
Many doctors, Calnen said, don’t have enough time to complete screenings, which could discover development problems, but add about 30 minutes to check-ups. So KITE started working with child care centers and preschools to encourage them share the results of their screenings.
At Opportunity Knocks, an early childhood coalition in Middletown, nutrition consultant Monica Belyea is working to get local companies to offer space for new mothers to pump breast milk at work, citing studies that breast milk improves infant health.
Her group has also been supporting preschool teachers in an effort to reduce suspensions. Two consultants visit classrooms and give advice on how to address behavioral issues, which Belyea said are increasing every year.
There were 106 children in the preschools identified as at-risk this past year, she said. With the help from the consultants, no students were suspended or put on a reduced schedule, she said.
“Teachers have a lot of skills to support kids with normal, challenging preschool behavior,” Belyea said. “What we’re seeing is more kids coming in with trauma and challenging home situations.”
Danbury’s Promise for Children has recruited parent volunteers to spread the word about free services available in the city. On a recent July afternoon, three women chatted up customers at the Danbury Farmers Market about the services. About 20 parents are part of the group, and many speak English and Spanish to reach more parents, coordinator Elizabeth Quinonez said.
“This kind of program helped me to be a better mom,” said Miguelina Matista, a Danbury resident who began receiving early childhood services seven years ago.
Home Visits, Information Sharing
Home visits are becoming common in many early childhood initiatives. Child First sends counselors into homes to give families trauma therapy. The federal Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visits program guides families through parenting issues.
“We focus on parenting skills, making them understand what their child development looks like,” said Glynn at The Village, which visits more than 100 families through its programs.
The state Office of Early Childhood is working to organize all home visitation programs. The state has recently set up an Early Childhood Information System to track health and learning data so policy makers and experts can address issues.
Efforts like CHDI’s Early Childhood Data Institute seek to bring more data – once relegated to forms in a file cabinet at day-care centers – into a centralized system.
“A lot of things have gotten in the way of exact children tracking: confidentiality issues, inability of state agencies to share data,” Honigfeld said. “We’re just starting to make some headway on overcoming those barriers.”
The Danbury program is explained in Spanish.