The Importance of Early Child Care

Schools need leaders and teachers who understand the importance of high-quality child care and early childhood education in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, a time of significant brain development when millions of neural connections are formed every second.

That’s the message behind a New York Times editorial written by Shael Polakow-Suransky, Bank Street College of Education president, entitled “How to End the Child-Care Crisis”. He addresses not only the need for educators who are trained to teach and care for children at this important stage but also the impact of trauma during the first few years.

His focus on the need for high-quality early learning experiences and the impact of relationships on the lives of children mirrors the philosophy behind Bank Street’s degree and certificate programs for teachers and school leaders.

Bank Street offers an online master’s degree in Early Childhood Special and General Education Dual Certification that prepares educators to best serve the learning needs of students during these important years. For current teachers and school leaders who want to develop further expertise in this area, the school offers an online Early Childhood Leadership Advanced Certificate Program and an online  Early Childhood Special Education Certification.

Read more about how Polakow-Suransky addresses the importance of preparing educators to teach children in the first 1,000 days of life in the full article.

A child’s first 1,000 days are a time to be seized.

By Shael Polakow-Suransky
May 24, 2019

Twenty-five years ago, the Carnegie Corporation released “Starting Points,” a report that described the lack of child care for infants and toddlers as a “quiet crisis.” It painted a bleak picture of overwhelmed families, persistent poverty, inadequate health care and child care of such poor quality that it threatened young children’s intellectual and emotional development.

Unlike most reports of this kind, “Starting Points” helped build momentum for new programs like Early Head Start in 1994 and the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997. They offer critical support for children and families, but little has changed for the better since then. Today 21 percent of children under 3 live in poverty. The United States is the only industrialized country without paid family leave. The percentage of working mothers has increased from 50 percent to 70 percent, but according to the National Institutes of Health, just 10 percent of our child-care settings provide high-quality care.

This lack of affordable quality child care is a crisis for American families. In 35 states, families pay more for child care than for mortgages, and in no state does the average cost of infant or toddler care meet the federal definition of affordable. On a per-capita basis, we spend roughly six times less on education for infants and toddlers than we do on K-12. This shortchanges our children exactly when the potential benefit is greatest.

We know from breakthroughs in neuroscience that children’s brains are growing explosively during the first three years of life — developing more than one million neural connections a second. A child’s early brain architecture shapes all future learning and behavior. This is also the period in our lives when we are most vulnerable to trauma. Experiences like homelessness, forced family separation or exposure to violence inhibit a child’s ability to learn and form trusting relationships. By 24 months, many toddlers living in poverty show both behavioral and cognitive delays. Equally powerful, though, is the impact of an attuned parent or teacher who understands how to build loving, responsive relationships that can stimulate learning and repair the damage done by trauma.

In exemplary early-learning environments, children explore a rich range of materials and make choices as part of carefully planned routines. At the water table, a 2-year-old girl smears her arms with purple paint while a 1-year-old boy watches intently from a teacher’s lap before toddling over to investigate. Nearby, a teacher reads a book about dolphins as two girls take turns looking at the pictures and discuss what noises dolphins make when they are sad. Across the room, a baby crawls after a ball and his mother says: “Yes, you found a ball. That ball can roll.” In each instance, the adult comments on the child’s exploration in language that connects to the child’s interests and signals to the child that what she does matters. These relationships and experiences accelerate brain development and are the foundation for academic success when children enter school.

2017 poll by the First Five Years Fund found that 89 percent of voters think making early education affordable for working families should be a priority. We need to take advantage of that public consensus and build a new system that supports families and nurtures learning from Day 1. If we care about equal opportunity in this country, we must provide more funding for infants and toddlers. Research shows that investing in early childhood yields a 13 percent annual return because quality care leads to success in school, increased earnings, improved health, stronger families and reduced crime rates.

So where do we start?

Six months of paid parental leave is the first step. This support will help address the shortage of infant childcare and allow critical family bonds to develop. Parents also need assistance during this time. Home-visiting programs designed to support healthy attachment between children and first-time parents should be accessible to all families.

The second step is improving compensation for early-childhood educators so that they earn the same as schoolteachers. Compensation is a key driver of quality, yet salaries for early educators have increased 1 percent in the past 25 years. A 2018 study found that 86 percent of infant and toddler teachers make less than $15 an hour. These meager salaries create enormous stress for teachers and, in turn, children. It makes attracting and retaining a qualified workforce close to impossible. Not surprisingly, the turnover rate in child-care settings is more than four times higher than that in elementary schools.

While early-childhood educators need to be paid more, it’s important that families are not left shouldering that cost. The third step is an infusion of public funding for child care subsidies that makes a system of sliding-scale tuition possible, placing a cap on the percentage of income that families are required to pay for care as well as increasing access to quality care.

Step 4 is public financing of teacher training. Unlike other professions, early care is not supported by a system of preparation and ongoing training. Early educators need a deep knowledge of child development and the chance to receive feedback and coaching as they learn.

As a nation, we are slowly waking up to the fact that our priorities have been backward for some time. A child’s first 1,000 days are a time to be seized, a time to level the playing field. Quality early care and education is not a luxury. It is a fundamental right we must guarantee for every child and every family.

Shael Polakow-Suransky (@Shaelsuransky) is the president of the Bank Street College of Education.

Originally published in The New York Times