Nurturing others comes naturally for Victoria Barajas, who has found her true calling as a home visitor. After spending 10 years working at an early learning school, she was drawn to home visiting’s ability to create supports for the whole family that build a strong foundation for years to come.

The “Yes Moment”

Home visitors like Victoria help parents engage in their children’s education and get a better understanding of developmental milestones. “A lot of parents are not aware that what they bring to the table impacts their child’s development,” she shares. “As parents get more involved, they’ll tell me things like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know my child could do this. I thought they were too small,’ and it makes them more eager to be involved.”

This builds a strong foundation for future learning. “Having the parent involved shows the child that their parent took the time to be with them and interact with them, so they feel confident enough to detach and interact with other adults,” she explains. When the child gets older, they’re more receptive to what they’re learning, are better able to problem solve and have increased communication skills.

For Victoria, the “yes moment” comes when parents begin to follow their child’s curiosity and development. “We can’t choose their interests for them — if we don’t follow their curiosity, they won’t want to learn anything else,” she says. “I know it clicks when parents say, ‘Wait, I know we planned for this because that’s what they were interested in last week but they’re not interested in that anymore. Can we do this instead?’”

Meeting Families Where They’re At

As a Spanish-speaking Latina, Victoria knows being part of a diverse home visiting workforce is essential to fostering intimate relationships with her families.

“You need to be empathetic and meet parents and families where they are at. It’s beneficial that I can connect with families in their language. It’s where they feel more confident in speaking and interacting with me because that is how they’re communicating with their child,” Victoria explains.

It is important to consider each family’s home culture and how they interact with their child. “Even among Latinos, Mexicans speak different dialects and Ecuadorians have different vocabulary so you can’t go into the home assuming everyone speaks the same type of Spanish.”

By building relationships with every adult in the home, including grandparents, Victoria builds a foundation of professionalism, empathy and cultural sensitivity. “When you do that, the adults give you so much more to work with and are open to receiving whatever you bring to their home,” she shares.

Supporting the Whole Family

In addition to helping parents build strong relationships with their children, home visitors connect families to the resources and supports in the community they need to thrive. Particularly during times of high stress, a parent may feel unable to give their full self to supporting their child. That’s why home visiting provides comprehensive supports to families. It’s only when a parent feels 100% that they can be fully present.

“I tell families that I’m here to work with the family as a whole, not just the child,” she shares. “If parents are focused on what they’re going through financially or dealing with depression, I know only supporting children’s development isn’t going to help. Once we address families’ basic needs and supports, we start to see an increase in parent interaction.”

During the pandemic, Victoria helped her families access basic needs like diapers, baby wipes, formula, cleaning supplies and gift cards to purchase additional items. “All my families said they really appreciated it, especially those who lost their jobs. It kept them afloat,” she recalls.

One of the biggest challenges during COVID was helping families with technology needs. Victoria helped her families navigate a variety of issues, from lacking access to a laptop or tablet to not having enough data to download the new apps required for virtual meetings. When some of her parents struggled to download mobile apps because the instructions were in English, she shared screenshots and instructions in Spanish.

As the pandemic ebbs and Victoria is able to resume in-person visits, she continues to prioritize each family’s perspective and comfort zone. “There are some families that are very relaxed and open to visitors and others that are very cautious as to their interaction with the rest of the world. I work with each individual family and meet them where they are.”

The Impact of Her Work

Now nearly 20 years into the work, Victoria remains passionate about being able to make a difference in children’s lives and help their parents understand why it’s important for them to be a part of their children’s development. Her reward is the pictures and text messages she receives from parents sharing a video of a first step, a photo from a birthday party, or an update from school.

“I got into this work for personal reasons, but working with families so closely and seeing the impact of my work is incredibly meaningful.”

More Like This

Millions of children will enter kindergarten this fall having never experienced the routines of preschool because of the pandemic. Many will likely have trouble following directions, playing cooperatively, and self-regulating through the stresses of new group settings with strangers. Quite a few will have developmental disabilities that were not identified or treated during the pandemic lockdown, which will make them even more likely to act out. Without intervention, past research tells us we can expect far more suspensions, expulsions and referrals to special education for behavioral challenges — especially for Black boys, Latino boys and Black girls, whom research has shown are far more likely to be identified as behavior problems by teachers than white children.

In a commentary in the Chicago Tribune, Start Early president Diana Rauner writes about how an entire cohort of children, disproportionately low-income children of color, are at risk of exclusion from the opportunities of education because of the circumstances of the past year and a half. It’s on all of us, the adults in these children’s lives, to help to ensure they are not unfairly stigmatized because of events beyond their control.

Read Diana Rauner's Commentary in the Chicago Tribune

See the Full Story Here

With the recent massive influx of federal spending on early learning and care, we face a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create an early learning and care system that prioritizes families and supports them when they need it most: during a child’s critical first five years.

Washington, D.C. has issued a clarion call to boldly rethink and improve our early learning and care programs. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) represents one of the most significant investments in young children in decades, which will funnel over $40 billion to states for early learning. States and communities are already beginning to plan for how to spend these dollars and are looking for guidance and expertise from the early childhood field. The American Families Plan dreams even bigger, proposing $450 billion in early childhood care and education funding that would provide quality preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds in our nation, support quality child care, expand the Child Tax Credit and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, and ensure twelve weeks of paid family leave.

Rising to this unprecedented opportunity will require coordinated, coherent and collaborative action. The capacity needed to get this moment right is more than any one organization can do alone, and it’s on all of us to get it right for our youngest learners.

It’s on state advocates and system leaders to successfully plan for and spend this unprecedented federal investment in early childhood systems. To dream big and lay a foundation for a more equitable early childhood system, particularly for families of color, all while facing quick timelines and no promise that this level of federal funding will continue. This is a bipartisan issue, and we’re already supporting both Democratic and Republican governors in 17 states to effectively use the funds to repair and redesign early childhood systems and supports to be more equitable, to increase access for families of color, to reach more children with disabilities and to target funding to build capacity of under-resourced communities.

It’s on philanthropic institutions and private support to continue funding the innovative quality programs and systems at the community level, so they can be scaled with public funding. Quality early learning and care is a proven solution to closing the opportunity gap and breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, but only if it is quality. More than ever, private support behind public investments will be essential to ensuring every child has access to equitable learning experiences needed to reach their full potential.

This is our moment. Together, we can transform our early childhood system so that every parent has access to quality programs and services that meet their unique needs. We can create a nation where every option available for families provides the supportive environment, ambitious instruction, effective leaders, collaborate teachers and involved families we know are essential to transforming the lives of children. We’re ready to answer this call and hope you will join us.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a destabilizing effect on preschool and infant-toddler classrooms across the country, impacted by substantial staff losses, pressure on families, safety demands and financial shortfalls. Program staff are currently under immense pressure to reimagine teaching, learning and family engagement.

When navigating unprecedented obstacles, a strong and supportive environment is critical for children and families to thrive and to ensure educator’s well-being. A strong organizational climate is the foundation for the connectivity and collaboration that staff need to feel motivated and confident, even and especially when physically distant from their colleagues.

For many years, Start Early has focused on helping the early childhood field broaden the focus of improvement efforts beyond the classroom to the organizational conditions that support staff and families. Throughout the ongoing pandemic, we’ve continued our work with programs across the country to help them strengthen their organizational conditions through The Essential 0-5 Survey — an evidence-based measurement system for program improvement. We are inspired to see programs’ continued focus on staff well-being, instructional leadership, collaboration, and continuous quality improvement.

Data collected during this pandemic through The Essential 0-5 Survey will not be an outlier. Even (and especially with!) the pressures of this unique situation, survey data point to critical patterns of organizational culture and climate. For example, if staff do not have relational trust during a crisis, these same patterns will emerge when not in crisis. In other words, patterns that emerge during this acute situation may point to chronic issues.

Now more than ever, we are witnessing how imperative it is for programs to have systems in place that foster healthy, safe and positive environments. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the research-to-practice report “Early Education Essentials: Illustrations of Strong Organizational Practices of Program Poised for Improvement”. The Essential 0-5 Survey is available online to support your program in this virtual environment. Email to get started today.

Tomorrow, President Joe Biden is expected to sign the American Rescue Plan, a sweeping $1.9 trillion stimulus package to help families across the country struggling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation includes investments in child care, health care, housing assistance, special education, mental health services, stable access to food and other supports for families that will go a long way to alleviating many of the challenges the pandemic has brought to families across the country -particularly those who live in communities that have been historically under resourced and overburdened.

It provides $39 billion in child care funding, includes immediate supports for child care providers who have been hit hard by the pandemic economically, allows states to ensure essential workers can access child care with little- to no-cost to them — regardless of income — and includes funding for the important work of rebuilding and strengthening state child care systems.

The legislation also includes significant investments for other critical parts of the prenatal-five system, including $200 million to support preschoolers with disabilities and $250 million for infants and toddlers under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), $1B for Head Start programs, and $150 million for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program.

In response, Kristin Bernhard, senior vice president of Policy and Advocacy at Start Early issued the following statement:

“Start Early applauds Congress for passing one the most significant investments in young children in decades, the American Rescue Plan. There has never been a more critical time to support children, families and the early childhood workforce.

“The last year has illuminated how the ongoing impact of historical and systemic racism continues to magnify the stressors so many of our youngest children and their families face, such as homelessness, food insecurity, and financial instability.

“While our early childhood education system was broken well before the pandemic began, the pandemic has left child care in America on the verge of collapse and in a state of crisis never seen before.

“Millions of families are struggling to provide the high-quality care needed for their children’s well-being and their ability to work. Doulas, home visitors, preschool teachers, in-home providers and other early childhood professionals have been forced to put their lives on the line or shutter their doors, all while being compensated at levels that don’t reflect their expertise or the importance and complexity of the work they do.

“Our nation has underfunded this crucial support for families for decades. This funding has the potential to improve access to quality early learning and care for all families.

“Perhaps most importantly, the American Rescue Plan creates an opportunity to build towards a bright and just future for all children. Now our efforts must focus on supporting states to effectively use the funds to repair and redesign early childhood systems and supports to be more equitable, to increase access for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), to reach more children with disabilities and their families, and to target funding to build capacity of currently under-resourced communities.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is home to several federal offices that set key policies for children and families. As President Biden’s nominee for HHS Secretary, Xavier Becerra, appears before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on February 23, we hope he will keep the needs of children and families at the forefront of the agency’s ongoing work and its efforts to rebuild and recover amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Families, providers, and community and state systems leaders have spent this last year learning and innovating as the pandemic forced swift action and adaptation related to key issues of access, inclusion, and equity in early care and learning. Here are the lessons we hope new HHS leadership will heed from early childhood stakeholders as they take the agency’s helm:

1. For the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services: Enable and scale innovations related to home-visiting and early intervention services.

HHS’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should explore new ways to leverage federal funding streams — like Medicaid — to expand access to evidence-based home visiting programs and doula services. By making access to MIECHV supported doula services a priority, HHS has the opportunity to address disparities in maternal health outcomes, improve engagement in home visiting, and strengthen the continuum of health-supportive interventions starting prenatally. Here in Illinois, Start Early has supported legislation to expand the Medicaid program to cover evidence-based home visiting and doula services, helping to ensure families have access to these high-quality supports that keep them and their children healthy. Expanding Medicaid to cover these important interventions will allow for state-wide expansion of home visiting and doula capacity and coordination of services and supports for children and families from before birth through early childhood. Under its new leadership, we encourage CMS to continue working with Illinois and other states who are working to remove barriers that prevent low-income women from accessing home visiting and doula services, provide guidance and support to states like Illinois that are looking to expand Medicaid coverage of these services, and replicate those efforts at the federal level. This includes timely approvals of flexibilities such as the 1115 waiver which extends postpartum coverage for women on Medicaid for up to 12 months.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, CMS has issued waivers and flexibilities that support the use of telehealth among Medicare beneficiaries. This has benefitted many underserved and priority populations, including children and families in rural areas and those receiving Early Intervention services. HHS has the opportunity to ensure that telehealth remains an option for delivery of all Early Intervention services beyond the current public health emergency. We strongly encourage CMS to use this unprecedented moment as an opportunity to learn from states and local communities where continuation of Medicaid-funded telehealth might benefit kids and families.

2. For the Administration for Children and Families: Promote cross-program collaboration and funding stream innovations that strengthen the U.S.’s child care infrastructure.

HHS’s Administration for Children and Families is home to the federal Office of Child Care and Office of Head Start, two entities that are positioned to continue making great strides in strengthening our nation’s child care infrastructure.

A key lesson from the pandemic is that simply stabilizing child care is not sufficient. We must also focus on improving, strengthening and redesigning our child care system to make it more equitable and accessible and supportive of the unique needs of home-based child care providers and family choice. We urge the Office of Child Care to explore how staffed family child care networks and shared services alliances can fulfill these goals, by increasing providers’ access to technical assistance and families’ access to embedded health, mental health and family engagement services. An investment in research is also essential, to determine the effectiveness of different types of networks for increasing supply, improving quality, enhancing child outcomes and to identify effective programs that support family, friend, and neighbor caregivers to maintain safe, stimulating home environments and earn livable wages.

We also encourage the Administration for Children and Families to explore how existing federal funding streams — including the Preschool Development B-5 funds, Head Start funds, and Child Care Development Block Grant — can be leveraged to ensure providers and networks of providers can partner effectively to best serve the children and families in their communities. While the pandemic has revealed the fragility of our under-resourced child care sector, it has also illuminated the importance of providers being able to braid or layer different funding sources to provide comprehensive services to families. Strong programs braid funding from various sources in order to ensure that the families they serve have access to a comprehensive, high-quality early childhood education experience. The Administration for Children and Families should work closely with state administrators to ensure providers at the local level can partner effectively by encouraging layered funding. This would go a long way toward improving the quality of experience for families with young children by increasing the opportunities for pre-k, head start, early head start and child care partnerships. Family child care networks and shared services alliances can be one of the vehicles for building those partnerships, as can the Early Head Start Child Care Partnerships model, which helps raise the bar on what quality infant and toddler care can and should be.

3. For the Health Resources and Services Administration: Learn from families and home visitors about their COVID-related funding and flexibility needs.

HHS’s Health Resources and Services Administration is home to the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home-Visiting (MIECHV) Program. Nearly one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, home-visitors and their clients have learned a lot about the limitations of home-visiting funding sources and the additional flexibilities needed to deliver high-quality services during this time. Pending the inclusion of additional MIECHV funding in future COVID relief packages, HHS should continue to support the home visiting field and MIECHV program by offering the utmost flexibility to state grantees. Without losing sight of the goal to return to in-person home visiting when the pandemic subsides, HHS should capitalize on the opportunity to evaluate what the field has learned from the shift to virtual service delivery, from ways to creatively engage families to new sets of workforce supports. As the field works to understand the blend of service delivery strategies that will best serve families in the long-term, research should ensure key equity issues are investigated including access to and comfort with technology, and disparities in health risks and comfort with in-home services moving forward.

Quality early learning and care can help our country address so many of the issues raised during this week’s confirmation hearing for President Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, including addressing the opportunity gap, providing social and emotional supports, and providing learning opportunities that are culturally and linguistically responsive and honor students’ unique needs and abilities.

Learning begins at birth and our education system should begin then as well. We can’t expect the K-12 system to remediate opportunity gaps that open before a child’s first birthday.

Cardona shared a desire to not only meet the immediate needs of students and their families amidst the pandemic, but to think beyond the present to design for building back better. This will require new ways of thinking and working. While today’s hearing focused on K-12 and higher education, we hope Cardona will address our education system as a single, interconnected journey that begins at birth (and before) and that must provide equitably and adequately for our students at every step. Of course, this will require aligning and coordinating early childhood work across the federal government, as strengthening early childhood programs and supports won’t be the work of the Education Department (ED) alone. We hope Cardona will champion these investments, even if they might happen outside of the Education Department, and partner closely with his peer leaders at other federal agencies that deeply impact young children, particularly the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Additionally, the collaboration between ED and HHS departments would send a message to system leaders at all levels to do the same — creating an opportunity to use ED’s bully pulpit to drive radical collaboration that benefits all children.

We appreciate the focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion and addressing the opportunity gap in the vision that Cardona has laid out. Additionally, we appreciate his commitment to examining school discipline issues and inequities, which have serious implications for all children, including our youngest learners and children of color.

Sens. Kaine and Cassidy also raised issues around supports for learners who have disabilities. Appropriate screening and early intervention are critical to ensuring their success, as is increasing funding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. We agree with Cardona that this would be a “game-changer” for learners.

Finally, it is important that all educators be offered the opportunity to be vaccinated as quickly as possible, a task that is so much harder in early childhood given the fragmentation of programs and providers. Given the vaccine roll out has varied at the local level, we encourage federal guidance that all educators be prioritized—whether they teach toddlers or 12th graders.

We encourage Commissioner Cardona, as well as the President and Congress, to continue to move quickly on delivering COVID-19 relief to children, families, and those who serve them, including ensuring that educators — beginning with those who teach our youngest learners — are included in priority groups for vaccine access.

Countless families continue to lack access to child care, early learning programs or in-person instruction as a result of the ongoing pandemic. In our final Starting Early Begins With… event, a diverse group of experts discussed the dismal state of our workforce and what needs to be done at corporate, provider and policy levels to reopen our early learning programs equitably and safely. Panelists included:

  • Dr. Theresa Hawley, First Assistant Deputy Governor, Education, State of Illinois
  • Peter J. Holt, CEO and General Manager, HOLT CAT; Co-Chair, Early Matters San Antonio
  • Angela Lampkin, Director, Educare Chicago
  • Cheryl Oldham, Vice President of Education Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Senior Vice President of Education and Workforce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
  • Moderator: Diana Rauner, President, Start Early

Watch the Webinar Recording

The discussion kicked off with first-hand reflections on how and why America’s workforce has diminished to what it is today. As early learning and care programs have closed or pivoted to virtual settings, many families are facing tough decisions about whether to leave jobs or hire additional assistance to properly care for their children. Others have lost jobs and are unable to afford to send their children to private providers.

The sad reality is that women have been hit harder by this recession. Not only are women voluntarily leaving careers to care for children, but they are also a staple of industries struggling most, such as hospitality or dining. Each month, hundreds of thousands of women — nearly eight times more than the number of men — are dropping out of the U.S. labor force. In September 2020 alone, about 617,000 women left the workforce, compared to only 78,000 men.1

As one panelist noted, these staggering statistics “cut at the knees” of the work that employers have done to build a more diverse workforce that includes women and minority leaders. “It’s a wakeup call,” the panelist added. “We need to help [employers] to understand the things they can do to support employees, and specifically women employees.”

Another panelist noted that in some cases, state and policymakers are responsible for ensuring the right supports are in place for working families. For example, in Texas, the state included child care centers when labeling and defining what is essential.

When asked how we collaboratively reopen programs and businesses successfully and equitably — while also supporting the needs of families and young children — panelists shared the following:

  • flexibility and adaptability
  • grace and understanding for families
  • matching our dollars with intention
  • examining how work and life work together

These critical phrases showcase that there are, in fact, promising actions that can be taken to address the complex and unprecedented issues we delved into during this event. Diana closed by reinforcing that as a society, “We need to acknowledge that these children are everyone’s responsibility… We as a community and as a nation have to find ways to support parents and not pretend that it’s a private thing that they do on the side when they’re not at work. But, rather, that it’s critically important that we provide the supports – social supports, maternal supports, health supports and, of course, child care.”

Thank you again to our panelists for spending time with Start Early and sharing such relevant and critical information with all who attended.

Starting Early Begins With…

Early Childhood Advocacy. Prenatal & Maternal Health Care. Economic & Workforce Stability.

About the Series

Decades of research have proven that quality early learning and care programs can have positive multi-generation impact, lifting families out of poverty and setting a foundation for success. Start Early invites you to a three-part discussion series with experts who will offer critical solutions to make equal opportunity to these programs a reality. While each virtual event offers a different perspective and topic, this series comprehensively covers concrete and evidence-based solutions for combating one of society’s most complex problems – generational poverty.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the U.S. last spring, decisions to close schools in many places came relatively quick. Decisions about child care, however, were another matter. Astute governors recognized that, although we didn’t know much about the impact of the virus on children, essential workers still needed child care – and not just first responders and health care providers, but millions of low-wage workers who are foundational to the functioning of our economy. In Illinois, as in most states, child care programs remained open, even in diminished capacity.

Though programs continued serving children and families across the country, there was significant concern about what impact this health crisis would have on the child care industry and its long-term viability. The sector was already struggling with undervalued and undercompensated staff and slim, complicated budgets often built on a mix of insufficient public funding and private payments from families.

There was also concern for the health and well-being of early childhood caregivers. Although child care providers’ orientation to health and sanitation has shown to help reduce transmission of the virus within child care settings, exploding community spread is challenging decisions to keep programs open. Further, the majority of those who care for children in child care programs are Black and Latinx women who find themselves and their communities at greatest risk for both contracting COVID-19 and experiencing poor outcomes due to the systemic racism that underscores health disparities in our country.

Early in the pandemic, key portions of Illinois’ early childhood system were stabilized with safeguarded funding for services, whether they continued in-person or virtually. Providers serving children in the state’s Child Care Assistance Program were afforded enrollment-based payments, and later modified attendance-based payments. Stipends and rate add-ons were also available to those deemed as “Emergency Child Care.”

While these steps were critical, it was clear that more work needed to be done to reach child care programs who had less of their budget covered by these public funding streams, or who serve smaller percentages of children in Child Care Assistance Program.

Fortunately, Congress acted quickly in the spring to pass federal COVID-19 relief packages, including the CARES Act. In Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker worked with the Illinois General Assembly to direct CARES Act dollars to help businesses cope with the loss of revenue they were experiencing and support small businesses through the pandemic so that they could return post-pandemic.

Notably, Governor Pritzker dedicated 50% (i.e., $270 million) of those business interruption funds to a specific program for child care providers, Child Care Restoration Grants (CCRG), to fill the gap between their usual levels of revenue and the resulting impact of reduced enrollment and attendance in classrooms. The program, which kicked off in September, permitted eligibility for all licensed child care programs, both home- and center-based and regardless of source of revenue.

Unfortunately, though, CCRG ended on November 30, with no future federal funding available to continue. Since the programs first grants, more than $250 million has been distributed to nearly 6,000 child care providers in 95 of Illinois’ 102 counties – the majority of which are home-based providers in areas outside of the larger metropolitan Chicago area and its collar counties. Providers who received the grants were more likely to report that private pay from families makes up around 40-50% of their revenue, with Child Care Assistance Program funds making up most of the balance. A much smaller percentage of providers received other state or federal revenue. Fortunately, only a very small number of programs were found to be ineligible for the CCRG funds.

The CCRG program proved to be critical for allowing child care programs to remain open, especially those with less access to public funding. While the state should leave no stone unturned to find a way to continue these grants, the reality of a COVID-19-impacted state budget and the failure of the Fair Tax proposal in the recent election, state dollars are scarce or worst, nonexistent.

To make child care supports available and reliable for the duration of this tragic public health emergency, the federal government must step in. Multiple COVID-19 relief bills drafted this fall have demonstrated that child care funding is a key priority for some. In addition, public polling continues to show that Americans understand–whether due to their own personal challenges or common sense–that strengthening our child care sector is a critical element of economic recovery. However, the longer Congress waits, the more child care programs will close. While some closures are temporary, others are permanent. This number will only increase as this crisis continues without an urgent response from Congress.

Child care programs not only provide safe and enriching settings for children, but also fundamentally allow parents to work and be successful employees, while knowing their children are being well-cared for. Programs also serve as employers and economic drivers – they are small, community businesses that purchase food, supplies and transportation services necessary for carrying out their function and mission.

A fundamental question remains for us. Will we act now to secure the economic health of the child care sector? Or, like our initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, will we wait until the problem is so bad that recovery becomes near impossible?

Once we can gain control of the pandemic and begin to return to normalcy, the economic health of our country will depend on the availability of child care for parents to physically return to their jobs. This is true whether you are a middle-income American currently juggling work and caring for your children at home right now, or whether you’re a low-wage worker, who saw your job evaporate during the pandemic.

A robust COVID-19 stimulus package is desperately needed by the American people on many fronts. Congress should make this its top priority – and ensure the passage of a package that directs significant funds to child care programs across our country and invests in young children and their families.

Diana Rauner, president of Start Early and Dr. James Heckman, the Nobel prize-winning professor of economics at the University of Chicago kicked off last month’s ASU-GSV Digital Summit with a discussion on the state of innovation in early childhood.

Their discussion ranged from Heckman’s work on long-term impacts of early childhood investments, new ways of measuring social and emotional outcomes, and the importance of investing in parents during these unprecedented times. A video of the discussion and key takeaways are below.

Research on the Long-term Impacts of Investing in Parenting

Rauner and Heckman spoke at length about his research and the importance of investing in parents. While we typically think of education as programs that are delivered directly to a child, Rauner noted that programs such as prenatal services, universal newborn supports and home visits should be considered education initiatives given their profound connection to children’s education outcomes.

The discussion also touched on how increased parental engagement is one of the most interesting findings of the Perry Preschool Project. In addition to being more likely to be employed, have completed more education and to have stayed married, the Perry participants turned out to be better parents. In an upcoming study of Perry participants through age 55, Heckman shared that he expects to see returns on investment of more than 10 percent, given the additional health benefits and impacts on the children of participants.

Parental Support During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Turning the conversation to the present, Rauner and Heckman discussed our nation’s current circumstances and the tremendous stress families are under, especially those living in communities that are under-resourced. Rauner noted that the most important supports for families during the COVID-19 pandemic have been to support family functioning — helping parents be able to be emotionally present and reducing the level of trauma and stress in the home existing from issues like food or housing insecurity.

The discussion also touched on how technology can be used to help coach parents, including virtual cohort groups and telehealth home visits that provide a lifeline of community and mental health supports for parents who might otherwise be completely isolated.

Emerging Measures to Evaluate Readiness and Social and Emotional Skills

As early childhood development continues to evolve, particularly in response to the current environment, one key question is how to effectively measure readiness and incorporate social and emotional skills into every stage of assessment. Heckman shared that grades are often used to measure knowledge and cognition, but social and emotional skills have a significant impact on children’s grades — as evidenced by his findings of Perry Preschool participants who had improved grades because they were more engaged in school. In addition to broadening how we evaluate children’s progress, Heckman emphasized the importance of longitudinal studies, given their unique ability to demonstrate the long-term impact of early childhood interventions. The discussion concluded with the importance of continued collaboration among economists, early childhood education researchers, investors, philanthropists and psychologists to continue advancing the field.

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