Give Every Child A Chance for Success in Life

Hardly a day goes by without a headline in our news media about the social and emotional development of our youngest children. Strictly speaking, the articles might not say that’s what they’re about, but they are nonetheless. If it’s a story about crime trends, education, or even Memphis’ economic development, it’s also a story about early social-emotional development.

Many talk about early childhood development beginning with Pre-K; that's too late! Tweet this!

What exactly is social and emotional development? It’s the change over time in the way children react to and interact with their social environments. A child is not born with the ability to identify his emotions, control his impulses, or understand his place in the social world. These fundamental social and emotional skills — and many others — must be learned through experience.

Because of the rapid pace of brain development between birth and age 3, early experiences can have long-term consequences. Infants and toddlers need nurturing parenting and stable environments that provide safety and security and support learning and exploration. Without them, a child is unlikely to reach his or her potential.

Ensuring that all of our community’s children have a strong social-emotional foundation can improve our city’s economic growth and competitiveness. Why? Because the social and emotional skills that children begin learning in infancy are strongly related to later outcomes like school readiness, college attendance and adult earnings.

Mayor Jim Strickland’s transition committee said it well: “Early childhood intervention…is the deciding factor between Memphis being a successful community in the future or simply maintaining the status quo.” Committee recommendations included city government taking a leading role in strengthening families, advocating for a “civic infrastructure” that coordinates City of Memphis and community resources, and ensuring universal Pre-K.

The benefits of this concerned attention to early childhood, according to the transition team, will be seen in lower rates of student detention, reduced crime rates among our youth, higher graduation rates, better educated and equipped workforce, and decreased “brain drain.” Recognizing that the positive impact will not come quickly, the committee said, “Like any good investment, we must stay the course!”

The research is unequivocal: children who receive sensitive, responsive parenting during infancy and early childhood tend to have better outcomes in the first grade, greater academic competence going forward, better social skills, and better relationships with teachers and peers. Later in life, these social and emotional skills have been linked to adult health, earnings, and criminal behavior.

When some people talk about how to enrich early childhood development, they begin with Pre-K. But that’s several years too late. The foundation for social and emotional development is laid from birth to age three, and that foundation pays off in Memphis’ economic growth and competitiveness for jobs and investment.

Clearly, these first three years are a time that cannot be wasted. This is when children begin to develop self-confidence, curiosity, empathy, and self-control. But they need positive and nurturing relationships with parents and other caregivers, because these form the framework for how children see themselves and how they interact with their world.

In other words, our goal for Memphis should be that all of us not only nurture the children in our own families, but that we advocate tirelessly for the interventions and investments that give every child a chance to succeed in life. Put directly, public funds spent on early childhood social and emotional development are not a handout for children and their families, but a solid investment in a better future for Memphis.

To learn more, keep an eye out for future installments in this series. Over the next few months, we’ll be taking a closer look at the four main components of social-emotional development: temperament, attachment, self-control and social competence.