Early Care and Learning Programs for America’s Children: What’s Good on a Local Level is Good for the Nation

The longterm gains of early childhood programs for children 0-5 years of age have been proven again and again.  American economists, such as James Heckman at the University of Chicago, remind us frequently that the greatest return on investment with regard to children happens in the years before a child begins school.  It’s a greater gain than investing in K-12 education as well as investing in students who attend college.   The issue is that investment in early childhood, and especially the birth to 3 period, pays off in the long run.  However, because it does not pay off in the short run, there is little motivation to invest.

When taxpayers, businesses, religious institutions, policymakers and politicians don’t see a short-term gain in their investment, it results in less interest and fewer dollars. With the current climate in American politics, politicians are worried about re-election.  They spend much of their time attending meetings with key power players and fundraising for the next election cycle.  Policymakers are focused on making a name for themselves or dealing in the here-and-now.  They spend time paying for and analyzing research as well as writing about their policies, the research and stating possible solutions.  Organizations and activists plan marches and events, such as the Strolling Thunder event that took place yesterday in DC, in order to draw attention to the need for funding that supports babies, toddlers and preschoolers and their families and caregivers.  Despite all these efforts, very little of the “taxpayer dollar pie” available for the government to spend gets spent on early care and early childhood programs.

So what can be done while American families wait for financial support that is already slotted for other important federal government programs (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, WIC, TANF, etc.)?  We can aim to reduce short-term costs of programs that are currently in place.  If we streamline costs by using items in nature, in the everyday environment of a child, or in most households to stimulate brain development, then the need for expensive curricula or toys/devices in early care and early education settings are decreased. Second, we can turn to local governments and businesses for support. If states and cities adopt economic development strategies that help children and families, these localities and businesses are then guaranteeing a better educated, more skilled and better prepared workforce in the future.  Third, we can balance high-quality business incentives   with high-quality early care and early childhood programs.  With a balance in benefits to families as well as to shareholders of a company, it is a win-win situation.  Fourth, businesses can aim to provide child care on-site, and, even better, partially fund child care of the employees’ choosing.  Finally, we can make use of resources from the US Chamber of Commerce and other entities across America which provide resources via their websites that can help businesses strategize about providing access to affordable, high-quality early care and education to children of employees in a way that benefits shareholders, employees and their families.

When we think about empowering businesses, families and local stakeholders to solve the problem of providing early care and education for America’s babies, toddlers and preschoolers, it is easy to envision the benefits that will result for entire communities, cities, states, and the whole of America.


Sensory Processing In Babies and Toddlers

Sensory processing is a frequently overlooked skill in the under 36 month old set.  Newborns arrive into the world with an already established preference for taking in the environment around them.  They are born with a sensory processing preference either for visual (looking), auditory (listening) or kinesthetic (movement) processing, and this preference will greatly affect how their brain is wired throughout their development from birth to age 3 as well as affect a child’s relationships and learning.

Often, a baby or toddler can have a sensory processing preference that is different than parents and caregivers’ preferences (The majority of us have a preference, which affects the way we take in our world and the way we learn as grown-ups!).  It can be a different sensory processing mode than siblings or playmates.  Sometimes that can lead to troubles in parenting, caring for or interacting with a baby or toddler.  It can lead to trouble establishing a bond or a relationship between young children and their parents, caregivers, family and friends. It can sometimes be tricky for parents, caregivers and early care professionals who work with babies and toddlers to figure out which of the three processing modes a baby or toddler prefers.  But, as Audre Lorde (American writer, 1934-1992) said so well, “It is not our differences that divide us.  It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.”

So, how can grown-ups tell which sensory processing mode a child from 0-36 months prefers?  We need only look at the way a child responds to different kinds of visual, auditory and kinesthetic input from his or her environment.  For example, we can watch how a baby or toddler responds to bright lights versus how s/he responds to dim or low lights, or even complete darkness.  Other clues about a baby’s or toddler’s sensory processing preferences include whether s/he likes to look at faces or turns away from faces, whether s/he does not seem to hear words when s/he is looking intensely at an object or person, or whether s/he seems to prefer to watching leaves move on trees or watch vehicles go by versus listening to a parent or caregiver sing a song.  We can observe how s/he responds to loud or soft voices, classical music versus rock music or environmental sounds such a pot dropped on the floor, a phone ringing or a dog barking. How quickly and accurately a baby or toddler imitates animal sounds such as “woof-woof” for a dog or speech sounds s/he hears spoken can tell us that s/he may prefer processing auditory information.  We can note how a baby or toddler responds to being held or not, being rocked or gently bounced, or being swaddled (or left free to move) in order to observe a possible preference for body movement processing. We can observe whether a baby or toddler prefers movements such as crawling, rolling, climbing or jumping so much that s/he may not be processing visual or auditory input around him or her, putting the child at risk for delayed speech, language or pre-literacy skills.  On the opposite end of the kinesthetic, or movement, processing spectrum, we can observe that a baby or toddler is hesitant to explore the world physically and that s/he prefers to stay in the safety of a parent or caregiver’s arms or sit on a bench at the park rather than slide down the slide or attempt to climb a ladder.

Once we are able to recognize sensory processing differences and preferences in babies and toddlers from 0-36 months of age, we can accept and celebrate those differences and preferences in order to shape brain development best as well as to guide learning for school readiness by the age of 3.





Government Is Not The Solution For Babies and Toddlers

Babies and toddlers make one million neural connections per second in the first 3 years of their lives.  They are laying down the foundations of their brain circuitry for learning, thinking and taking in their world that they will have for their entire lives.  Emory University and the state of Georgia’s “Talk With Me Baby” informational sheet tells us that 85% of brain growth occurs in the first 3 years of life.  By age 5, it’s 90% formed, according to First Things First, a public funding source in Phoenix, Arizona dedicated to early childhood development so that Arizona’s children can succeed in school and life.  Brain connections made in the early years of life will be the foundation on which all future brain connections will be built.

Currently, there are countless public-funded groups, non-profit organizations, activists and individuals who aim for government and public funding to be the solution for babies and toddlers.  They are working hard to address such issues as paid family leave, high-quality early care and early education to make sure all children get the best start as possible in life.  These groups and people want solutions, to be sure. 

However despite all of their efforts, the cogs of government to approve government programs at the local, state and federal levels turn very, very slowly.  Even when groups achieve some or most of their intended noble goals, whether that be writing early childhood policy, funding research that proves the crucial learning that happens from birth to age 3, contacting lawmakers, and/or building public awareness of the importance of birth to 3 development, the next step is where they typically stumble and, too often, fail:  to secure funding for government programs for all babies, toddlers and preschool-aged children.  As Cynthia Nixon, actress and public school advocate, tweeted recently regarding the state of New York’s universal pre-K achievements, “it would take 57 years to fund full-day universal pre-K” at the current funding levels that Governor Cuomo has dedicated to universal Pre-K in the New York state budget.  

Obviously, the babies and toddlers of today don’t have 57 years to get the right brain stimulation and to have high-quality interactions with caretakers and parents. They have 3-5 years to build 85-90% of their brains in the care of the grown-ups in their lives.  If these children don’t get what they need in the early years, the odds have it that they will go on to a lifetime filled with struggles and challenges, such as poor school performance, special education needs, young parenthood, juvenile delinquency, and low-paying jobs.  Then, out of their own experience of struggle and challenge, these children will go on to have their own children who will also struggle and be challenged in school and in life.  And, from there, the cycle repeats itself generation after generation.

The babies and toddlers of today don’t have the luxury of waiting one more day for government programs, policymakers, lawmakers, and funding to come through for them.  Every day that little ones go without real-time, free or low-cost solutions to meet their needs for high-quality care, conversation and interactions with parents and caregivers, that is one less day that babies and toddlers’ can spend getting prepared to succeed in school and life.

Communicating and Interacting with Children 0-36 months in an Age-Specific Way

We’ve all heard the advice given to parents and caregivers to “talk, read and sing” to babies and toddlers to get them ready for school and life.  We hear experts remind us that it’s never too early to start talking, reading or singing to children and that the more we do these activities with children, the better off they will be.  The landmark study from Hart and Risley in 1995, titled “The 30 Million Word Gap” , told us that children from disadvantaged homes, poor families and certain family backgrounds hear 30 million fewer words than those from privileged backgrounds or wealthy homes.  The study informed us that those children who hear far fewer words will be far less prepared for school than those who heard more words.

Recently, a study from Harvard found that it isn’t just the number of words a child hears before his or her third birthday that makes the biggest difference in school success, but it is the turn-taking that parents and caregivers do with babies and toddlers.  We now know that children whose parents and caregivers engage in back-and-forth conversations with them are better prepared for school than those children whose parents and caregivers “talk at” or “speak to” them without engaging in turn-taking.  Babies and toddlers who participate in the back-and-forth, flowing and pleasurable communication with their parents and caregivers learn more easily, have richer, bigger vocabularies and learn to read earlier and more easily than those who do not participate in conversational and turn-taking activities with parents and caregivers.

But, as we know, conversing with a 1-month old baby looks very different than conversing with an 11-month old, which in turn looks very different than conversing with a 21- or a 31-month old child.  It’s not enough for parents and caregivers to be advised to “talk, read and sing to your baby or toddler.”  It’s bland advice that will not prepare all children equally for school by the time they are 36 months old.

So, what should we do?  We need to give advice to parents and caregivers that reflects the ages and stages of a baby or toddler in their care in order to have the greatest impact on the child’s brain development and school readiness.  We need to encourage grown-ups to observe when a baby or toddler is in a “listening mood” and ready to hear language, which looks very different at 3 months of age versus 23 months of age.  For example, a 3-month old may have just woken from a nap and is awake, but is not alert and ready to hear a story.  Or, in the reverse, a 23-month old may be exhausted and ready for a nap, and, therefore, is not ready to hear a story.  When thinking about babies and toddlers taking turns and staying engaged, we need to support parents and caregivers in observing that a baby at 6 months of age will kick its feet with a smile on its face to request that a conversation or interaction continue and then provide specific tips as to how to keep the conversation with a 6-month old going.  A 26-month old child will stay in a chair to let grown-ups know that he or she wants the story (and the questions the grown-up is asking about the story) to continue.  If he or she doesn’t “stay put,” we need to offer specific tips about how to keep the toddler engaged in the story and questions-asking activity.

The words we choose or how we use them matters greatly at different ages and stages.  Parents and caregivers can use the phrases “Open them” and “Close them” while opening and closing their own hands in front of a 4-month old baby to help build understanding of the words “open” and “close.”  Parents and caregivers can gently open and close Baby’s hands while saying the phrases “Open them” and “Close them” to Baby.  Turns are expected be taken in this type of “conversational” activity for about 30 seconds with a child 4 months of age.  However, with a 24-month old child, parents and caregivers can use questions such as “Can you open the door so we can go to the park?” or directions such as “Close the lid on the toy box” in the context of conversations in order to build language and literacy skills for school readiness.  Moreover, this 24-month old child should be able to, and be expected to, interact and play in activities involving opening and closing boxes, doors or containers with a play partner for 10 minutes.  A by-stander should be able to describe these 10 minutes of interactive play with a grown-up as easy-going, effortless and enjoyable.

In order to truly prepare babies and toddlers for school by the age of 36 months, parents and caregivers need more age-specific guidance than most current advice gives them.  Parents and caregivers need to understand how to converse and share language, social skills and emotions with a 2-month old, a 12-month old and a 22-month old.  Some may think this will bog parents and caregivers down with too much information, so they stick with the weak advice to “talk, read and sing to your child.”  But, if we truly want all children to be ready for preschool, pre-K and beyond, then we must provide parents and caregivers with specific, rather than insufficient, advice.

All babies and toddlers, regardless of their socio-economic status or family background, depend on their parents and caregivers to be armed with the best information available at the present time from such fields as early childhood development, neuroscience and speech-language pathology in order to be successful in school and life!

Photo credit:  Jelleke Vanooteghem jelleke.com @ilumire

Character Development in Young Children Matters

In his article titled “The Character Factory”, David Brooks reminds us that character and behavior (e.g., resilience, conscientiousness, prudence, perseverance, ability to delay gratification, having a growth-mindset, personal drive, self-control, ability to maintain focus and attention, etc.) influence academic achievement as much as cognitive skills do. He tells us that “sages over years have generally found at least four effective avenues to make it easier to climb.” He delineates them as follows:

First, habits. If you can change behavior you eventually change disposition. People who practice small acts of self-control find it easier to perform big acts in times of crisis. Quality preschools, K.I.P.P. schools and parenting coaches have produced lasting effects by encouraging young parents and students to observe basic etiquette and practice small but regular acts of self-restraint.

Second, opportunity. Maybe you can practice self-discipline through iron willpower. But most of us can only deny short-term pleasures because we see a realistic path between self-denial now and something better down the road. Young women who see affordable college prospects ahead are much less likely to become teen moms.

Third, exemplars. Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders. The centrist Democratic group Third Way suggests the government create a BoomerCorps. Every day 10,000 baby boomers turn 65, some of them could be recruited into an AmeriCorps-type program to help low-income families move up the mobility ladder.

Fourth, standards. People can only practice restraint after they have a certain definition of the sort of person they want to be. Research from Martin West of Harvard and others suggests that students at certain charter schools raise their own expectations for themselves, and judge themselves by more demanding criteria.

What Brooks does not emphasize in his article is that the best way to get to the character development and necessary behaviors for academic achievement and societal mobility is via language and social-emotional modeling. He lightly brushes broad strokes on a canvas, telling us that quality preschools, K.I.P.P. schools, parenting coaches and exemplars for children make a difference in children and families with regards to increasing upward mobility and realizing dreams. However, he doesn’t tell us about the details of how and why these programs or ideas work. Unless children, families and communities get what the those in the top income quintile already get (e.g., top-notch exposure to the language, social, emotional and sensory stimulation, excellent role models, amazing mentors, etc.), they will continue to flounder or move at a glacial pace toward change for the better.

In the U.S., experts do a great job giving broad advice. Doctors tell us to eat a healthy diet. Educators tell us to read and talk to our children right from the start. The media, presenting us with evidence from research, tells us what needs to happen for this, that or the other thing to happen. But, rarely do we get specific details about what one needs to do consistently and across time to be successful and to make for real and permanent change.

I agree with Mr. Brooks whole-heartedly that success in life has to be about helping children and adults learn the character and behavior skills proven to lead to success in life in terms of being happy, self-motivated and self-sufficient, and a good citizen, amongst other revelations of success. But what the next 1 or 2 generations of children, families and communities from the bottom quintile of society need is specific, detailed, carefully taught advice that is then monitored and encouraged by those who know, specifically, what it takes to succeed and who have achieved success themselves.

I can’t use words such as “specific” or “specifically” enough on this matter. The bland advice parents, families and communities have received is clearly not working. It’s time to get to the nitty-gritty of what leads to success.

In Pitching Veggies to Kids, Less Is More

Matt Richtel, NY Times writer of the above-titled article, tells of research that goes along with the video I have attached here (The video is Halloween-themed, but fits perfectly here nonetheless.). In the article, he writes “One of the fiercest marketing battles in the world takes place in kitchens and at dining room tables across the world. The sellers are parents, trying everything to persuade their children to eat their vegetables.”

Richtel goes on to share new research which shows why parents — and food marketers — are barking up the wrong tree by trying to convince young children that food is “yummy,” “healthy,” or “good for you.” Apparently, kids are on to those of us who are trying to teach lessons around food. The problem, Richtel states, is the pitch: It is too aggressive, even at its most well-meaning and heartfelt. The best way to pitch food to children, the research finds, is to present it with no marketing message whatsoever. According to Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the research paper’s co-author, “You just need to give them the food. You mess them up by giving all kinds of messages.”

Richtel paints a broader picture when he tells us that the paper, to be published in October in the Journal of Consumer Research, offers insight not only into kids’ decision-making around food, but also “into the powerful and counterintuitive ways that overzealous marketing can misfire.” In the research, young children who received no information or “marketing” about eating Wheat Thins or carrots ate more than the children who heard that the foods were healthy or yummy.

Why was no message the best message, Richtel asks? He and researchers offers the following possibilities: 1) the “dilution effect” — the watering down of a marketing message that makes too many claims, and 2) if children think food is good for them, it can’t also taste good.

Then Richtel asks, “So what to do?” He ends his article by writing “Let children make their own decision with a major caveat: Choose what food to put in front of them. Don’t pitch, but also: ‘Don’t let them do the shopping,’ Professor Fishbach said.”

This research is a fine example of what I’ve written about so many times in my blog: teaching babies, toddlers and young children to make good choices, whether they be choices in nutrition/diet, communication/language, or social-emotional skills, requires that parents’ and caregivers’ actions speak louder than their words. Want respectful kids who are good listeners? Show them from the day they are born what it looks like to be kind, respectful and a good listener. Desire healthy and strong kids? Eat a balanced, nutritious diet and exercise regularly in front of a child from the moment Baby comes home from the hospital. Desire emotionally intelligent children who understand others’ emotions and manage their own emotions well? Be the most emotionally intelligent parent or caregiver you can be with family, friends, neighbors, community members and colleagues every day of your life.

The most important point is that children are learning from us right from the start. The children in one experiment in the new research were 4 and 5 years old. By this young age, children made choices to eat (or not eat) healthy snacks more often when there wasn’t “preaching” about why they should do so. It seemed like a good enough idea to them on their own. They saw right through adults trying to convince them to do one thing or another (I am reminded here of times I’ve seen parents try to convince or sell their child on the idea of saying “I’m sorry” when the child clearly doesn’t want to or won’t say it.). Children by 4 or 5 don’t just learn to make behavioral choices overnight based on what seems like reasonable, smart or wise behavior in others. They won’t do well in school or behave a certain way just because adults tell them so. Children won’t be convinced of much, even when given the aggressive, hard sell. What it takes is the grown-ups around them, during the first 3 years of their lives, indirectly teaching and demonstrating what they need to know by the age of 4 or 5. For babies and toddlers, there is no more powerful learning experience than observation during those first 3 years to truly prepare children for school and life.

10-Month Old Baby Understands Emotional Tone of Song Sung By Mom

Anyone who thinks that babies under 12 months of age don’t understand much about their world should think again. Babies might not be able to tell us with words what they know and understand, but they can certainly tell us with their faces, their emotions and their body movements. Babies are amazing sponges and imitators. The baby in the video is living proof of someone perfectly capable of absorbing his mother’s emotion and expressing a like emotion that he hears in her voice while she sang.

The baby is perfectly able to feel emotion and to feel moved by someone else’s words and music. My guess is he will store away the experience of feeling saddened by a song and use the learning experience somehow and in some way later in his young life. Who knows? Perhaps when he is older he will be drawn to and appreciate sad country songs later in life, and not really know why!

When watching the video, I couldn’t help thinking of the high school students I work with at an alternative DC high school who have significant emotional disturbance and behavioral problems. What emotional experiences (e.g, anger, frustration, sadness, fear, happiness, etc.) did these students observe in others faces’ or body movements when they were 12 months of age or younger? What emotions did they hear expressed in the voices around them? Were there mostly positive or negative emotions and voices in their environment?