When It Comes to Quality Care ... Start Younger!

As our understanding of early childhood brain development expands, so too should our appreciation for the importance of high-quality early care and education. During the first years of life, children experience unparalleled socio-emotional, behavioral, and cognitive growth and development. During this period, the foundation is laid for all subsequent development.

As a result, the first years of life represent an exciting opportunity for us to improve the future well-being of our community. Certainly there are lessons for families in the growing science of early brain development about how best to nurture and support their children’s early development. A useful shorthand for much of this research is that parents should understand the importance of holding, talking, reading, and playing when it comes to optimal early childhood development.

But at the same time, we also need to acknowledge the reality of modern family and work patterns in America. Today, where a majority of parents – both mothers and fathers – work outside of the home, meaning that the majority of children, including our youngest children, spend a portion of every day in the care of someone other than their parents.

The quality of the care that children receive in child-care settings makes a tremendous difference. Unfortunately, most child-care in America is low quality, characterized by high caregiver turnover, poorly designed programs, or inadequately prepared staff. As research by the National Institute of Early Education Research and the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child makes clear, poor quality care can potentially jeopardize a child’s health, safety and development, and can leave children poorly prepared for school.

When children arrive at kindergarten without the developmental skill-sets in place to thrive, they are more likely to struggle and fall behind in school, are more likely to engage in risky behaviors as teen-agers and become teen parents, and are more likely to drop out of high school before they graduate.

On the other hand, young children who are nurtured by warm, supportive caregivers in the first years of life develop greater social competence, exhibit fewer behavioral problems, and develop enhanced thinking skills. This foundation, in turn, translates into enhanced academic performance and greater lifetime well-being.

How much of a difference can quality make?

Last year, a study was released that has been tracking more than 1,300 children since 1991. Among the study’s findings: at age 15, children who received low-quality care during their first four years of life are likely to have higher rates of behavior and academic problems at age 15.

More evidence comes from a recent review of 20 major research projects that evaluated dimensions of outcomes associated with the quality of early care and education, the non-partisan Child Trends research institute found a consistent relationship between the quality of child-care and child outcomes.

For all children, higher-quality care was associated with modestly higher academic and language outcomes and social skills. These relationships remained even after controlling for background characteristics of children.

The importance of quality is one reason why the nation-wide move toward universal, voluntary pre-kindergarten programs such as Tennessee’s Pre-K program is to be applauded. As the recent studies out of Vanderbilt University affirm, it is just such programs that are associated with the greatest gains in early development and school readiness.

Even more significant, Child Trends found that children’s academic and language outcomes were stronger when they had access to high-quality early learning programs as 2 and 3 year olds, long before most children have access to high-quality early care and education. Paraphrasing Edward Zigler, the father of Head Start: when it comes to high-quality early childhood investments, earlier is better.