Connecticut’s report card
“I would give us a good A minus for our preschoolers, our three to fives ,” said Jessica Sager as she graded Connecticut’s investment in early childhood. “For our infants and toddlers, I think we’re still at around a B minus.” Jessica thus kicked off a May 5 CPTV Town Hall Meeting about the need for rich and responsive environments for our youngest children. Her statement highlighted a central issue of the forum: Why do we wait to invest in our young children’s brains until much of their development has already taken place?
The CPTV Town Hall Meeting, hosted by CPTV’s Diane Smith, brought together a panel of early childhood experts and leaders comprised of Myra Jones-Taylor (commissioner of the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood), Walter S. Gilliam (director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Philosophy at Yale University), Irene Garneau (instructional coach at the Wintonbury Early Childhood Magnet School), Dr. Cliff O’Callahan (pediatrician) and, of course, our own Executive Director Jessica Sager. It followed an advance screening of a new PBS documentary, The Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation.
The documentary takes an in-depth look at the importance of a child’s earliest years and explores the science of brain development and the impact of children’s environments and caregivers on long-term learning and health. It gives compelling evidence for spending on infants and toddlers rather than waiting until they are old enough for developmental delays to really set in: by age three, a child’s brain is about 85% developed, and if certain areas of the brain aren’t stimulated early on by meaningful interactions with adults, neurological connections can actually die off. While it’s possible to rebuild these connections, it can be costly, time-consuming, and in the end, not as effective as it would have been in the early years. “If we don’t do right by our babies, we’re going to be engaging in some very expensive, very emotionally taxing neurological rehabilitation,” said Dr. Gilliam. In the long term, spending too little on early care and education leads to far more spending down the road because of the high costs of special education, incarceration, and mental and physical health issues.
The panelists described how parents and providers can create enriched environments for young children to avoid the need for neurological rehabilitation later on. “It doesn’t have to be a wealthy environment,” Dr. Gilliam noted. The heart of an enriched environment isn’t actually the physical space itself: it’s a wealth of opportunities for babies and toddlers to interact with responsive adults. “It’s the whole idea of just engaging a child and babbling and being silly and being sweet,” said Myra Jones-Taylor. In addition to fostering healthy brain development, she continued, “it’s a great way to bond.”
“Acrobats without a safety net”
One of the most poignant moments of the Town Hall came when a man named Carl called in to ask the panelists how single parents fit in to this picture. If a parent is working two jobs and barely has time to get kids fed and to bed, he asked, how can he possibly give them the rich learning experiences and nurturing interactions that the film and panelists had described as necessary for proper development?
The panelists, and the members of the studio audience, nodded as Carl spoke. Each one recognized the desperation of parents scrambling to make ends meet. “In America, we feel that our parents need to be like acrobats without a safety net,” said Professor Gilliam.
Commissioner Myra Jones-Taylor echoed Professor Gilliam’s frustration, saying that too many parents still feel like they’re on their own. She gave examples of things that parents and caregivers can do to promote learning even if they’re strapped for time. “There are so many things that we do in our normal, daily lives that are teachable moments, if you will,” she said. “While you’re folding the laundry, you can have a conversation, you can sing.”
She also noted that in circumstances in which parents are constrained by stress and a lack of time, having access to affordable, high quality child care becomes especially critical. Unfortunately, the United States ranks thirty-first out of forty-five nations in the availability of child care, and twenty-second in child care quality. “The statistic that I always give is that in New Haven, for example, there is one licensed spot for every eight babies who need one. In Bridgeport, it’s one for ten,” said Myra Jones-Taylor. Even when parents can find child care, they are unlikely to be able to afford it: full-time care for an infant costs families an average of $12,000 per year. To put that number in perspective, tuition at UConn comes to $9,000 per year.
Although this price seems high, most child care providers are not even close to making a living wage: the average wage for a child care provider in Connecticut is just $23,310. And if a provider is too stressed because she can’t pay her bills or pay her staff members, Jessica explained, she’ll never be able to sustainably provide high quality care and create the relationships with children and parents that are so critical. Furthermore, many young people who would make excellent early care and education providers are dissuaded by the low wages inherent in the field. “As a state, we need to step up,” Jessica said, to pay for quality, attract top providers, and make up the difference between what parents can afford and what providers deserve.
Professor Gilliam agreed that increased public support is key for a sustainable early childhood system. “When it comes to public investment, you really can’t make a better investment than in early childhood education,” he emphasized. These investments have a positive impact on all levels of society: on children, whose life outcomes are dramatically improved because of their early life experiences; on parents, who are able to provide for their families and contribute as members of the workforce because of having reliable care arrangements for their children; and on child care providers, who can earn the wages they deserve for their critical work.
A long way to go
Senator Beth Bye (D-West Hartford), a former preschool teacher who has led the effort to increase the number of high quality preschool slots in Connecticut, was a member of the CPTV studio audience. “We have to start making investments in human infrastructure, because Connecticut relies on human capital,” she said.
Both the panelists and the audience realized that creating a well-funded, high-quality system of early childhood education in Connecticut is an uphill battle that will need strong support from parents, providers, advocates, and, of course, elected officials like Senator Bye. “We have a long way to go,” said Senator Bye.
The Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation will be out this fall. To learn more about the film, click here.
To view the entire CPTV Town Hall Meeting online, click here.