Opinion

Invest Early in All Our Children

As we expand access to early childhood education, we must recognize that children with special needs will require more intensive support than others.

National Journal
Marylee Allen And Daniel Hains
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MaryLee Allen and Daniel Hains
May 1, 2014, 11:53 a.m.

Right now, a strong case is be­ing made for pub­lic in­vest­ments in high-qual­ity early child­hood ex­per­i­ences for all chil­dren. The re­search is clear: The earli­est years of a child’s life are marked by rap­id brain de­vel­op­ment, lay­ing the found­a­tion for fu­ture edu­ca­tion­al and life out­comes. High-qual­ity early child­hood op­por­tun­it­ies be­ne­fit the chil­dren who par­ti­cip­ate in them, par­tic­u­larly those with the greatest needs and the greatest risk of be­ing left be­hind. So­ci­ety be­ne­fits through a sub­stan­tial re­turn on in­vest­ments made.

As we work to­ward ex­pand­ing ac­cess to qual­ity early child­hood ex­per­i­ences for all chil­dren, however, we must re­cog­nize that some chil­dren will need more in­tens­ive sup­port sys­tems than oth­ers. Pro­grams must be de­signed so that they can meet the unique needs of chil­dren com­pre­hens­ively. Chil­dren who are the poorest, strug­gling with dis­ab­il­it­ies, learn­ing Eng­lish as a second lan­guage, home­less, or in foster care of­ten need an ex­tra boost to meet their in­di­vidu­al needs and keep them abreast of oth­er chil­dren in early child­hood set­tings.

The num­bers and needs of these chil­dren will vary from classroom to classroom and pro­gram to pro­gram. But they must be con­sidered and planned for as in­vest­ments in early child­hood are made and ex­pan­ded. A snap­shot of chil­dren with spe­cial needs tells us that:

  • More than one in four chil­dren un­der age 5 — nearly 5 mil­lion — were poor in 2012; and nearly half were ex­tremely poor, liv­ing in a fam­ily of four with an in­come of less than $11,925 per year;
  • In 2011, more than 1 mil­lion chil­dren ages birth through 5 were iden­ti­fied as hav­ing dis­ab­il­it­ies or de­vel­op­ment­al delays, and were served by the In­di­vidu­als with Dis­ab­il­it­ies Edu­ca­tion Act;
  • Dur­ing the 2011-2012 school year, chil­dren learn­ing Eng­lish as a second lan­guage rep­res­en­ted 12 per­cent of chil­dren in pub­lic school preschool pro­grams;
  • More than one in three of the al­most 400,000 chil­dren in foster care in FY2012 were un­der the age of 6.

Chil­dren with spe­cial needs of­ten bring a wide range of phys­ic­al and emo­tion­al chal­lenges to early child­hood pro­grams. Some­times their fam­il­ies lack ba­sic es­sen­tials, in­clud­ing food, hous­ing, and med­ic­al care. Some chil­dren may have un­met health and men­tal health needs due to in­creased ex­pos­ure to vi­ol­ence, ab­use, and neg­lect — and the stress that ac­com­pan­ies them. Oth­ers may need little ex­tra help. The good news is that we now have abund­ant evid­ence that high-qual­ity early child­hood ex­per­i­ences can buf­fer the im­pact of chal­lenges some chil­dren face and pro­mote pos­it­ive short and long-term out­comes.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2013 re­port re­leased by the So­ci­ety for Re­search in Child De­vel­op­ment and the Found­a­tion for Child De­vel­op­ment, while all chil­dren be­ne­fit from high-qual­ity pro­grams, chil­dren from low-in­come house­holds, those with oth­er spe­cial needs, and chil­dren learn­ing Eng­lish as a second lan­guage have the po­ten­tial to be­ne­fit more. The re­port high­lighted evid­ence from pub­lic preschool pro­grams in Bo­ston and Tulsa, Okla., as well as the fed­er­ally fun­ded Head Start pro­gram.

Gov­ernors and may­ors in red and blue states across the coun­try have taken note of such find­ings — and the eval­u­ations of New Jer­sey’s court-ordered Ab­bott Preschool pro­gram, which tar­gets com­munit­ies with high con­cen­tra­tions of poverty. The par­ti­cip­at­ing chil­dren in New Jer­sey have shown pos­it­ive be­ne­fits from the pro­gram last­ing through at least their fifth-grade year. Oth­er states are now work­ing to in­crease their own in­vest­ments in high-qual­ity early child­hood de­vel­op­ment activ­it­ies for chil­dren; however, without a strong na­tion­al com­mit­ment, ac­cess to qual­ity pro­grams will be in­flu­enced by the lot­tery of geo­graphy.

A na­tion­al com­mit­ment to a high-qual­ity early child­hood ex­per­i­ence for every child must mean a tar­geted com­mit­ment for in­di­vidu­al young chil­dren with dif­fer­ent spe­cial needs. There must be train­ing and oth­er sup­ports for staff work­ing in early child­hood classrooms so they can reach chil­dren suf­fer­ing the stresses of trauma in their daily lives. There must be com­pre­hens­ive ser­vices so no child enters a classroom dis­trac­ted by hun­ger, sick­ness, or pain. Chil­dren in foster care, of­ten vic­tim­ized by ab­use or neg­lect, and chil­dren who are home­less may need ex­tra sup­ports to en­sure they do not slip between the cracks and miss the be­ne­fits of early child­hood de­vel­op­ment and learn­ing.

Chil­dren with dis­ab­il­it­ies and those who are at risk of de­vel­op­ing them need con­sist­ent ac­cess to early in­ter­ven­tion ser­vices as they move through the con­tinuum of early child­hood pro­grams. Par­ents and oth­er care­givers must also be en­gaged as act­ive part­ners in their chil­dren’s early de­vel­op­ment and learn­ing, and ex­tra sup­port should be offered par­ents when they need it.

The Strong Start for Amer­ica’s Chil­dren Act re­cog­nizes that this is all ne­ces­sary if we truly want to pro­mote equal op­por­tun­ity for all chil­dren and build a stronger so­ci­ety.

All our chil­dren have it in them­selves to be ex­traordin­ary. With sup­ports, young chil­dren born in­to ex­treme poverty today and without con­sist­ent ac­cess to ad­equate health care or nu­tri­tion can be­come the nurses and doc­tors who will care for our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren to­mor­row. In­fants and tod­dlers liv­ing in home­less shel­ters or in foster care can be­come the en­gin­eers and as­tro­nauts who race to the heav­ens and take hu­man­kind to places bey­ond our wild­est ima­gin­ings.

MaryLee Al­len is act­ing policy dir­ect­or and Daniel Hains is an early child­hood policy as­sist­ant at the Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund. 

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