Feb 11 2013

The Policy and Practice of Early Childhood Development

by at 10:46 am under Uncategorized

By Lauren Barth (Georgetown Public Policy Review)

We know how to raise happy, healthy children.  This message was at the core of both panel discussions on early childhood innovative practices at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute LEAD Conference.  The science of early childhood development is clear, but implementation remains a challenge.

The panels brought together seven experts from a variety of fields.  The first discussion centered on healthy development and featured moderator Miriam Calderon of the Administration for Children & Families, Health & Human Services; Danielle Ewen of the District of Columbia Public Schools; Matthew Melmed of Zero to Three; and David Olds of the Prevention Research Center for Family and Child Health at the University of Colorado.  The second discussion addressed techniques for protecting children at risk and included Miriam Calderon, Judge Cindy Lederman of the 11th Judicial Circuit in Florida, Kirsten Kainz of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and David Willis of the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Despite the diversity of their professional backgrounds, all panelists perceived a yawning gap between theory and practice in services for young children and their families – a serious problem considering the profound effect the first one thousand days of life have on cognitive and socio-emotional development.  Experiences during this formative period lay the foundation for future growth and learning, and studies have shown the effects of these experiences persist into adulthood.   Consider the following facts presented by panelists:

  • Adverse childhood experiences have been linked to heart disease, early death, diabetes, and underemployment (Willis)
  • The brain of a three year old brain is twice as active as that of an adult (Willis)
  • Children that enter school in the bottom quartile typically stay in the bottom quartile for the remainder of their academic careers (Willis)
  • Children who receive high quality early education are less likely to suffer from depression, more likely enroll in college, more likely to complete high school, four times more likely to graduate from college, and more likely to obtain consistent employment as adults (Kainz)

These data make a strong case for reinforcing early childhood systems of care, especially considering that Early Head Start reaches less than 4% of children eligible and childcare subsidies reach only 16% (Olds).  And as Melmed pointed out, studies of maternal and early childhood interventions have identified as much as 86% return on investment.

We know how to improve outcomes for at risk children, and we know that the best interventions start early.  The challenge now is implementation.  Services and communities need to come together around child centered systems of care that leverage funds as effectively as possible.  We also need to invest more.  Kainz quoted Steve Barnett of the National Institute of Education Research when she said “Once we stop thinking of preschool as a charity and start thinking about it as an investment in everyone’s future, we might actually do what is necessary to meaningfully improve the education of young children.”

When researchers, administrators, judges, and nonprofit leaders agree on the importance of beginning evidence based interventions earlier in life, it’s time to listen.  Smart, targeted investment America’s youngest and most vulnerable children could transform the American education system and workforce from the bottom up.


Lauren Barth is the Senior Marketing Director of Policy Forums at the Georgetown Public Policy Review.

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