Why I Believe in Early Childhood Education

enrichment activityWith the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I see clearly that I hit the jackpot when born into my family of origin. My parents were intelligent, loving, conscientious caregivers whose life decisions were consistently in service of my brother’s and my best interests. We enjoyed stellar public education with engaged parents on the academic and social fronts. We profited from a gaggle of enrichment activities. And my folks did the hard work of molding us into independent, responsible, principled, resourceful, caring human beings.

I never thought much about the manifold blessings of my upbringing until I spent a year working with The Oregon Community Foundation on volunteerism in early childhood, courtesy of an encore fellowship. I did a lot of reading on the subject and was stunned by the extent to which one’s earliest developmental experiences set the course for future success.

In Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky identifies seven essential life skills for which each child ideally achieves mastery during the formative years:

  • Focus and Self-Control, which encompasses paying attention, adapting to priorities flexibly, holding information in one’s mind while working on it, avoiding distractions, and resisting temptation while working toward larger goals.
  • Perspective Taking, which enables the child discern how others think and feel, and understand what they might want and need.
  • Communicating, which entails the development of a broad vocabulary, finding the right words to express thought and feelings, and listening attentively to others.
  • Making Connections, which involves putting things into categories, noting the relationships between them, and recognizing that something can represent or stand for something else
  • Critical Thinking, which relies upon the ability to identify problems, specify desired outcomes, explore alternative solutions and their pros/cons, select and options, evaluate its efficacy, and regroup, as needed.
  • Taking on Challenges, which cultivates a growth mindset in which a child narrates abilities as skills that can be developed.
  • Self-Directed, Engaged Learning, which helps the child self-actualize through curiosity, exploration, and disciplined study.

These skills form the foundation for a child’s future across abroad range of metrics – e.g., scholastic achievement, economic independence, health outcomes, social prowess, community engagement, avoidance of juvenile justice, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse.

While the home environment accounts for the lion’s share of a young child’s readiness for learning when they enter kindergarten, early interventions in Pre-K learning environments can help course correct for disadvantaged children. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child highlights the following 5 numbers when articulating the importance of early childhood development:

  • Brain architecture develops rapidly during the first few years of life. The 700 new neural connections formed every second build the foundation upon which later learning, behavior, and health depend.
  • By age 3, children born to college-age parents develop vocabularies 2-3x the size of those born to parents without a high school education. The latter enter school at a substantive disadvantage absent exposure to a language-rich environment.
  • Childhood adversity increases the probability of development delays by age 3. The more risk factors – e.g., poverty, caregiver mental illness, child maltreatment, single parent, substance abuse, low maternal education, crime – the greater the chance of delay.
  • Children who experience 7-8 adverse experiences in childhood triple their risk of heart disease in later life.
  • Every dollar invested in early learning environments for low-income children reaps a $4-$9 benefit to society by reducing special education, welfare, and crime, and increasing tax revenues from program participants.

Those of us who reaped the rewards of secure adult attachments, ample resources and opportunities, effective skill and knowledge development, and social capital (connections) owe a huge debt of gratitude to the caregivers and communities who supported us. We can express our thanksgiving by lending our support to public and private programs that provide affordable housing, economic support, and equitable access to early childhood education. It’s the least we can do.