Early Childhood Development is Good Policy

For many people these days, the word "policy" invokes thoughts of red and blue, left and right, elephants and donkeys. But for those in the research and policy group at the Urban Child Institute, the word is less dichotomous.

"At the Institute we are non-partisan — we do not advocate for a specific political party, agenda, or policy," says Pete Albrecht, Research Associate and Director of the group's internship program. "The main thing we do is explain the community and policy implications of the best available research on early childhood development.

For this reason, members of the department are frequently called upon by organizations in Memphis, including the city council and county commission and the mayors' offices, to offer their perspective on matters pertaining to early childhood development.

Early Childhood Development Experts​​

"If you wanted, for example, to find local expertise on the difference universal pre-Kindergarten would make in Memphis, we would be a logical place to come," says Dr. Doug Imig, head of the department. "We would be able to say what is happening in pre-K in Memphis, what is the best available evidence of the difference pre-K makes in Memphis, and the difference that would make in the future of our community."

The department also works on policy papers, press briefings, manuscripts for conferences and academic journals, needs assessments and evaluation studies for organizations working on behalf of young children. On a regular basis, the department speaks with news outlets and gives presentations to think tanks and universities. The department's work, however, is not restricted to the academic and political sphere.

Kindergarten Readiness

Whether they are aware of it or not, council members, pastors, and parents can all affect the issues of early childhood development. One such issue, kindergarten readiness, is of particular interest to Dr. Imig and his team, who sometimes provide training sessions on the subject. Depending on the audience, the topic prompts different questions.

"Parents want to know whether their child is ready for kindergarten. In a sense they want to know what recipes they need to follow to make a child kindergarten-ready," says Dr. Imig. "Early childhood educators, on the other hand, are focused on knowing how best to support what's happening at home to help children make the transition to formal schooling. Kindergarten teachers, meanwhile, want to be ready to build on the early learning foundation of each child that comes to their classroom."

Applying Research to Real-World Situations

The team also reaches the community through a newsletter called Research to Policy. Available online and distributed via email, these newsletters cover a different subject each month pertaining to early childhood development; this month's issue discusses the importance of high-quality child care for optimal social and cognitive development.

"The good news is that science affirms what we have long suspected: children do best when they are raised in an environment of love and care," says Pete Albrecht. "In these newsletters, we take the research and we translate and apply it into real-world scenarios."

In addition to synthesizing the work of others, the department conducts research of its own. For the last three years, UCI staff has taken part in kindergarten registration day for Memphis City (now Shelby County) Schools. This year, the Institute investigated early-education dynamics within families with young children, and studied how routines in the home affect kindergarten readiness. While this data is integral to the department's ongoing research, it also provides a chance to refocus on its ultimate goal.

"We on the policy side have a laser-sharp focus on the best available evidence and data. This can mean long hours staring at spreadsheets and census data. The kindergarten – registration project offers a welcome reminder that our ultimate goal is to help children thrive."

So while the word "policy" may make many Americans cringe, for those in the department at UCI, it indicates the possibility of positive change.

"All the research that we produce is meant to have policy implications," says Pete. "Everything is meant to be interpreted as something that a person, family, or government could do to support early childhood brain development and improve the wellbeing of young children in Memphis."