To the editor of THE EAGLE:
Renewed emphasis on the value of high quality early childhood education is always welcome. However, oversimplification of the impact of a one-year program for four-year-olds ignores the reality of ongoing learning that occurs right from birth.
I was recently waiting on line in a large store waiting to check out. To my right, a mother was waiting with a toddler in the seat of her filled cart. Whenever the child attempted to get her mother’s attention the mother hit the child, seemingly indicating she wanted her child to sit still and wait silently. To my left was another mother with a toddler in her cart. As soon as she lined up with her cart she took a simple picture book from her purse and started engaging her toddler in "reading" the pictures with her.
Learning to be curious and interested in the world starts with family interactions. The very effective Perry Preschool Program often cited for its long-term success in increasing participant preschoolers’ high graduation rates and reducing prison time included a full-time family support worker for every class who engaged families in valuing and supporting their child’s learning.
It is time we stopped fooling ourselves into thinking that the children of our poorest, neediest families will "catch up" with a one-year program. It is time we recognized that these parents in poor families need ongoing support right from the time of their child’s birth. And they need opportunities for themselves as well as their children.
When I taught some of these families I remember an initial session with a parent and her preschooler. I had an easel set up for painting. A few minutes after their arrival I looked over. There was someone at the easel painting but it wasn’t the child, it was his mother. She had never experienced easel painting before. She was engrossed in the activity. This was an important step in her learning before I could expect her to encourage her child to try.
Local programs like the Berkshires Healthy Families Program recruit expectant parents and help them to build nurturing parent-child relationships. The skills parents need include responding sensitively to their child’s physical, emotional and cognitive needs.
We need to invest in our families development right from the start and continue this support to effectively impact long-term outcomes. Look at the huge growth in our prison population, now over two million with almost seven million under correctional supervision. This population is comprised primarily of adults who lacked the quality early family experiences needed for healthy development. And the estimated annual cost for the 40 states participating in a recent survey was more than $39 billion.
It becomes clear that investing in early family support and childhood education (about $15,000 per family for high quality services) is a drop in the bucket compared to what we pay to hold people in prison. Prevention via family and early childhood education rather than much delayed and usually unsuccessful intervention is the answer! It is long past time for our nation to recognize its responsibility!
The writer is a retired associate professor of early childhood education, Central Connecticut State University, and a member of the board of Healthy Families of the Berkshires.