In this blog, Kristin Bernhard, Start Early senior vice president of policy and advocacy, shares our work towards building back a better early childhood system that addresses and diminishes the inequities that exist for our youngest learners and families.

The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a report card on the status of our society — and not a very flattering one. It has exposed and highlighted the profound inequities, from health care to affordable housing, that exist from coast to coast. We have seen that nearly every aspect of the social safety net is weaker than we had hoped; in particular, the limitations and weaknesses of our country’s early childhood system have been thrown into stark relief.

At the same time, we have been reminded that racism permeates our communities, risking the physical and social-emotional safety and well-being of the children, families and caregivers with whom we work so closely. We have been called upon to renew our collective commitment to racial equity and finally undo generations of institutional racism that continue to traumatically impact children and families.

Now, we have a choice: 1) rebuild the fragile, inequitable early childhood system that was in place prior to the pandemic, 2) or build it back better by collaboratively rethinking and improving early learning and care programs by proactively addressing existing disparities and ensuring that programs meet the needs of children and families. We must work towards the latter.

How?

  • By inviting more voices into the conversation about rebuilding and recovery
  • By identifying gaps in who is represented in these critical conversations and exploring how we can engage with and learn from more diverse groups of partners
  • By centering voices of those most directly and disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s impact and amplifying them to make systemic changes that are responsive to the emergent needs of families and early learning and care programs
  • By pairing the lived experiences of minority and historically under-resourced communities with the Start Early’s research, program, advocacy and policy tools — in order to activate the field to demand that policymakers build back better

In order to do this right, we must engage in conversations about building back a better system where race, ethnicity, zip code, socioeconomic status and other related factors do not predict a child’s growth and development or access to resources.

As we continue to see the detrimental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic unfold, we are, however, also witnessing innovation in action through the responses of providers, communities, policymakers, researchers and countless other early childhood stakeholders. For example:

  • Teachers and other educators have rapidly learned and implemented new technologies to support at-home learning and family engagement efforts.
  • Policy and practice changes have allowed the use of telehealth and other virtual communication tools for home visiting and early intervention services.
  • Researchers have sprung into action to document the experiences of families and service providers.
  • State administrators have streamlined the procedures for accessing child care subsidies and services.

We must acknowledge, applaud and leverage the flexibility and swift action brought on by the pandemic to inform how we rebuild.

Through the Build It Back Better initiative, Start Early is partnering with early childhood stakeholders from across the country to share their challenges, innovative solutions and ideas about what major questions must be asked and considered during this unprecedented time. It is our goal to collaborate with families, communities and local, state and federal leaders to amplify these critical questions and perspectives to best inform decision-makers’ efforts and respond to the changing needs of children, families and practitioners.

As we examine lessons learned so far from this pandemic, we can recreate the conditions in which inequities persist and worsen in crisis — or we can build it back better, more equitably and more sustainably. Now more than ever, we must underscore that ample investment in early learning and care is essential for addressing and diminishing the inequities that exist for our youngest learners and families.

Start Early works to provide a bright and just future for all children, and this would not be possible without recognizing that each child, family and community has been uniquely impacted and traumatized by generations of institutional racism and long-tolerated inequities. As an organization committed to making sure that children, particularly our youngest learners, have the best chances in life, we stand in solidarity with those peacefully protesting the historical trauma, institutional racism and police brutality that is rampant in major U.S. cities. We unequivocally condemn this senseless violence and acknowledge the problems that plague communities of color across the country — lack of economic opportunity, over-policing, inaccessible health care, housing instability and environmental inequities. We see these issues, among others, as a direct threat to our mission, and we will continue to identify and prioritize the populations most impacted by these barriers.

Although the racially charged murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and now George Floyd are currently in the spotlight, for every high-profile death that makes national news, thousands of similar incidents are quickly dismissed or ignored. As we face the loss of another Black life taken at the hands of police officers, the raw emotion and exasperation of protesters is justified and heartbreaking. We also see the generational inequities of racism embedded amid this global pandemic. The majority of “essential workers” are people of color who are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates due to the underlying health conditions that often impact poor and minority communities.

Start Early commits to strengthening and deepening its work as an anti-racist organization that works in true partnership with communities to ensure equitable access to high-quality early childhood care and experiences. We look forward to working with our staff and our partners in the fields of research, policy and practice to explore ways we can leverage our mission to dismantle racism and support children from historically marginalized and under-served populations. We aim to approach this critical work with humility and reflection.

We do not have the answers, nor do we pretend to. However, we are working with our partners to do more than listen and heal. We are working to dismantle and rebuild. We refuse to compromise our mission by tolerating explicit or implied practices and policies that negatively impact the integrity or ability of Black children and their families to thrive and prosper long-term. We are prepared to act accordingly to confront anti-Black policies and practices, and we won’t allow them to go unchecked.

To the Black men, women and children in this country who have been carrying the burden of racial injustice and systemic anti-Black sentiment for generations: we see you, we hear you and your life matters.

Despite the unprecedented challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis, pregnant women continue to receive support from Start Early doulas, or childbirth coaches. Read more about how Start Early’s Healthy Parents & Babies doula, Patricia Ceja-Muhsen, continues to provide support and guidance to pregnant mothers through virtual means.

Read More

The latest study released by Professor Heckman has significant implications for the early childhood field. In this opinion piece written by Start Early (formerly the Ounce) President, Diana Rauner shares some of her insights on this new research and why it matters.

To break the cycle of poverty, start early

This week, Nobel laureate James Heckman released a groundbreaking study on the Perry Preschool Project, an intervention in the 1960s and whose participants are now in their late 50s. Long-awaited in the early childhood field, this research followed at-risk children from low-income families and the impact of early childhood education on their life trajectories. The conclusion is powerful: the improvements in life outcomes for the first generation leads to better life outcomes for their children and, one can expect, for future generations.

The promise of early childhood education has always been its long-term impact on the lives of those fortunate to experience high-quality education. During the first few years of life, children build the capacity to ask for and receive help, manage frustration, persist at tasks, and control their impulses. These skills are developed through interactions with others and lay the groundwork for more complex social and cognitive skills as children grow.

The ability to self-regulate, control one’s impulses and other social/emotional skills have led to better long term life outcomes for our youngest learners: greater high school and college completion rates, higher earnings, better health and less involvement in the criminal justice system, all of which have significant benefits to society as well.

During the two short years of preschool, the children in the Perry program learned skills that they then used in future years to build more skills. At every point of analysis, the Perry Preschool participants have been found to have greater executive function and a more positive outlook on life. By age 50, the participants had used these skills to become better citizens and employees and better husbands and fathers. Their children were therefore more likely to grow up in two-parent families.

Although our work has been anchored in scientific research for decades, Dr. Heckman’s recent findings validate what early childhood leaders clearly know and understand: starting early is the key to a lifetime of success.

The outcomes of the Perry study make it clear that access to high-quality early childhood education and interventions, parental resources, and systems of care are game changers. These experiences will have a positive impact on the long-term social/emotional development of our most vulnerable children and their families. When we get this right for our youngest learners, we create a pathway for them to develop the key skills they need to reach their full potential in school and in life.

So, why should society be as excited about this study as we are in the early childhood education field? We now have evidence-based research demonstrating that despite the pressures of poverty, high-quality early childhood education sets children and their families on a track to break the cycle of poverty for generations to come.

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