Mental health is a vital aspect of our overall well-being and serves as a strong base to navigate the ebbs and flows of our day to day lives with resiliency. But what exactly is mental health, and why is it so important in early childhood development? Our mental health expert, Michael Gouterman, shares his expert insight on understanding mental health in early childhood.

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What is mental health?

At its core, mental health encompasses social, emotional, and psychological well-being. It’s about how we think, feel, and behave, and how we navigate the world around us.

Providing safe environments for children, where they can build relationships and connections with their caregivers and loved ones, has a positive impact on their mental health. These early interactions lay the groundwork for a child to learn and feel a sense of safety and security in the world.

In these safe and nurturing environments, children begin to develop what psychologists refer to as a secure attachment which Influences how children relate to others throughout their lives.

Why is mental health important in early childhood development?

At Start Early, we know that the foundation of a child’s social and emotional competence begins forming in the prenatal relationship and continues to be laid the very first days, months, and years of life, shaped by the interactions babies have with their parents and other caring adults. Babies thrive when they are securely attached to someone special—their mother, father or other primary caregiver—who knows and responds consistently and reliably to their needs.

Mental health is a lifelong journey that is shaped by our experiences, relationships and environments. We know from research that quality programs for infants, toddlers and their families can make a significant impact on their lives, a difference that can last a lifetime.

As we embark on this journey of exploration and understanding, let’s remember that mental health is not a destination but a continuum. By nurturing our own mental well-being and supporting those around us, we have the opportunity to build a stronger world for everyone to thrive as their best selves.

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The earlier that we can start to help our children understand their emotions, the better the outcome in raising kind, empathetic children. Brain scientists, educators, economists and public health experts all agree that building a good foundation for healthy relationships begins at birth. The earlier that your child can adapt and develop key social-emotional skills—like attentiveness, persistence and impulse control—the sooner they can begin engaging in healthy social interactions with peers.

Young children aren’t necessarily born with the skills to engage in healthy relationships; they are born with the potential to develop them. With young children, it’s important that parents teach empathy by being the example. Show empathy daily to your children, family, and others in your community during your day. When empathy is shown by the parent, talk that through with your child by being attentive to their feelings. Use language like “I know that was hard for you, you seemed sad but you’re safe and loved.” This language will help children to be aware of their own emotions and feelings, in turn helping them be empathic to others.

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Tips for Parents:

  1. Explore your child’s emotions together and engage them in imaginative play to learn how to express those feelings so that they can better manage their emotions before starting preschool.
  2. Teach your child that it’s okay to have whatever feeling they are having: anger, frustration, embarrassment, fear, even rage, but that it is not acceptable for their actions to cross over and affect someone else negatively.
  3. Teach your child that it’s good to try to understand why someone else is having negative feelings. There may be a very good reason for their friend or acquaintance to be feeling angry or afraid.
  4. Teach your child that it’s never okay for them or anyone else to use their feelings as an excuse to verbally attack someone. And that when someone does this, it is time to get an adult into the situation.

You as a parent play an important role along with your child’s teachers in laying a strong foundation for social-emotional skills that will help your child to form healthy relationships. It is important for the adults in your child’s life to model positive behaviors and set clear rules.

Activities

Here are 2 activities that you can do at home with your little one to help teach them about empathy:

Conscious Discipline Kindness Tree

Make a Kindness Tree

The Kindness Tree is a symbolic way to record kind and helpful actions. Family members place leaves or notes on the tree to represent kind and helpful acts. Parents can notice these acts by saying, “You __(describe the action)__ so __(describe how it impacted others)__. That was helpful/kind!” For example, “Shubert helped Sophie get dressed so we would be on time for our library playdate. That was helpful!”

The Kindness Tree can also grow with families who have children of mixed ages. Initially, young children simply put a leaf on the tree to represent kind and helpful acts. As children grow and learn to write, the ritual evolves to include writing the kind acts down on leaves or sticky notes. Start your own Kindness Tree with this template.

Families with older children can simply use a Kindness Notebook to record kind acts and read them aloud daily or weekly.

Make a We Care Center

Two girls playing togetherThe We Care Center provides a way for family members to express caring and empathy for others. Fill your We Care Center with supplies like minor first aid items (Band-Aids, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, scented lotion), card-making supplies (preprinted cards, paper, crayons, sentence starters), and a tiny stuffed animal for cuddling.

When a friend or family member is ill, hurt, or having a hard time, your family can go to the We Care Basket to find a way to show that person they care. At first, parents might need to suggest how and when to use the We Care Center, but your children will quickly understand the intent. In this way, the We Care Center encourages the development of empathy by providing a means for children to offer caring and thoughtfulness to others every day.

This content was cross-promoted on our partner’s website, Big Heart World. Check out Big Heart World for additional social-emotional resources for parents and educators.

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For over 40 years Start Early has worked tirelessly to advance quality early learning and support for children and families. We know that starting early has the biggest impact on a child’s development and that Head Start and Early Head Start are an essential part of our work to help all children thrive.

In honor of Head Start Awareness Month, we spoke with Diana McClarien, our vice president of the Early/Head Start Network, to share how our relationship with Head Start began, the benefits of the program and our hopes for the future of Head Start and Early Head Start.

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Start Early & Head Start

Head Start Blocks logoStart Early’s partnership with Head Start began in 1985, coinciding with the launch of the Beethoven Project, a groundbreaking program developed to provide wraparound services – including early education options – to families in Chicago’s Grand Boulevard neighborhood. Initially starting off as a grantee of Head Start funding, Start Early has since developed a deep, decades-long relationship with Head Start, that has culminated in a Start Early, Early/Head Start Network, two directly operated programs, and the aligned goals of delivering equitable access to high-quality early learning and care for children and families in the areas in which we operate.

As our network now stands, we partner closely with several local community-based agencies, including our two directly operated programs – Educare Chicago and Healthy Parents & Babies – delivering not only early learning services but also crucial components like doula, home visiting, nutrition, family, health and wellness services. With Black and Hispanic children representing a disproportionate share of children living in disinvested areas, Head Start programs also play a crucial role in addressing opportunity gaps in school readiness for children facing systemic barriers.

Looking to the future, we will continue working in tandem with Head Start to best meet the needs of the families we serve and continue centering family and early childhood education provider voices and expertise in all areas of our work. We are also working to expand our network reach by partnering with new agencies to deliver Head Start services throughout Chicago and our surrounding suburbs and are actively expanding our efforts to address the teaching shortage in the early education field. Through this approach, we hope we can continue providing the best-in-class early education and services so that our children and families within our communities and programs can thrive.

In the 2022-2023 school year, Start Early served over 1,900 people through Head Start & Early Head Start programs, including 39 pregnant women.

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Head Start 101

Learn more about Head Start’s crucial role in promoting early childhood education, school readiness and comprehensive support for children and families across the country.

What is Head Start?

Head Start (HS) is a nation-wide, federally funded compensatory preschool education program. Head Start and Early Head Start (a division of Head Start specifically focused on children aged zero to three) are designed to promote school readiness in infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Head Start also serves pregnant women with a range of prenatal supports and postpartum educational opportunities.

Since 1965, Head Start has long been considered a premier model for early childhood programs (Ramey & Ramey, 2010), and has aimed to foster development and school readiness skills for children from primarily low-income communities.

With Black and Hispanic children representing a disproportionate share of children in poverty, Head Start programs act as a lever to address longstanding racial and ethnic gaps in school readiness outcomes.

Children that participate in Head Start programs make tremendous progress in the areas of language, literacy, and math, and achieve average scores related to letter-word knowledge by the end of their first year (Aikens et al., 2013; Bloom and Weiland, 2015).

The benefits are even more robust for children enrolled in Early Head Start, with higher kindergarten readiness scores and increased social-emotional, language, and cognitive development than children who never attend a Head Start program. (Love et al., 2002)

Head Start as a Model

Head Start programs are typically located in high-poverty areas and provide comprehensive services that address the needs of the whole child, including their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Many Head Start and Early Head Start programs are located within nonprofit organizations. These nonprofit organizations are uniquely positioned to help identify child care needs and develop workable solutions for families. They can also connect families with additional services through their network of local partners, who are able to leverage alternative sources of funding.

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Celebrating Head Start Awareness Month

As part of Head Start Awareness Month, our Early/Head Start Network will launch a Child Development Associate® (CDA) program for parents that have children in Start Early and partner sites. The CDA Credential™ is an important credential for early childhood professionals, as obtaining it allows them to take the next step in their career.

We hope to engage with Head Start parents everywhere to elevate their perspectives and gain insights on the best ways to support their children. We know that when teachers and parents are aligned in building a solid foundation, children can thrive.

Join us this October as we celebrate and promote Head Start on social media! Use the #HeadStartAwareness hashtag in your posts to highlight the program.

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Citations

  • Bloom, H. S. and Weiland, C., Quantifying Variation in Head Start Effects on Young Children’s Cognitive and Socio-Emotional Skills Using Data from the National Head Start Impact Study (March 31, 2015).
  • Love, J. M., Kisker, E. E., Ross, C. M., Schochet, P. Z., Brooks-Gunn, J., Paulsell, D., Boller, K., Constantine, J., Vogel, C., Sidle Fuligni, A., Brady-Smith, C. (2002). Making a difference in the lives of infants and toddlers and their families: The impacts of early Head Start. Volumes I-III: Final technical report and appendixes and local contributions to understanding the programs and their impacts. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation.

Please join me in celebrating the release of Flourishing Children, Healthy Communities, and a Stronger Nation: The U.S. Early Years Climate Action Plan. Since its launch in June 2023, it has been my honor to serve as Co-Chair of the U.S. Early Years Climate Action Task Force, and I am grateful to my fellow Task Force members for their contributions and to Capita and the Aspen Institute for creating a forum for this important work. We owe the success of these recommendations not only to their hard work but also to the insights that were so generously shared with us by caregivers and other early childhood, health, climate and systems leaders through listening sessions.

Start Early believes that our early childhood system should be high-quality, equitable and responsive—and climate-resilient. Adapting and expanding our child- and family-facing services in the years ahead is especially critical to our ability to support those most impacted by climate disruption: pregnant people, infants, and young children, particularly those with disabilities and those impacted by environmental injustice and racism in America.

Together, the early childhood and climate change mitigation fields must look to the strengths and protective factors offered by our early childhood system to support these high-priority populations in the context of a changing climate. The challenge of climate change is daunting, but well-resourced, accessible early childhood systems are key in helping young children and their caregivers prepare and adapt. Child- and family-serving programs are key resources in both helping children and their families remain safe amid climate emergencies and helping them prepare for the future of our changed climate by building resilience, navigating information and resources and strengthening community networks.

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As you review the Task Force’s recommendations, I hope you’ll take them as both a call to action and an invitation for partnership. The actions proposed for policymakers; federal, state, and local systems change leaders; funders; and researchers can only be meaningfully implemented in true partnership with the families and early care and learning providers. As we collectively face the daunting challenges associated with climate change, our policies and resiliency planning efforts must be rooted in bidirectional relationships with caregivers of young children; we must center their voices and experiences and collaboratively develop solutions that work.

The parents and caregivers who shared their experiences with us made it clear: even as coordinated, systems-level solutions begin to emerge, parents and providers have already been innovating and identifying their own solutions to keeping pregnant people, infants, and young children safe and happy in a changing climate. Let’s partner with them to advance these innovations and move forward together to co-design a more climate resilient future for our nation’s families, expectant parents and youngest children.

Why is it so important to ensure that children have quality care and educational experiences in the earliest years of life? A nurturing and supportive environment during a child’s first years lays the foundation for future success in school and life. To truly appreciate why this time of life is so crucial, it helps to understand a little bit about brain science and early brain development.

The First Years of Life: What does science tell us?

During the first several years of a child’s life, the brain forms over one million neural connections every second.

Babies’ brains are quite literally wired to learn. This rapid absorption of information creates new neural connections and builds the architecture of a baby’s brain. For comparison, adult brains have thicker, but fewer, synaptic connections.

This makes adults more efficient at doing what they’ve done before (e.g., speaking, writing and reading) but less effective at learning new things, such as a foreign language.

Picture of number of synapses in a baby's brain in first months and years of life compared to as an adult

Original source: Adapted from Corel, JL. The postnatal development of the human cerebral cortex. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1975. Link source: Urban Child Institute

The above figure illustrates the rapid rate at which synapses are formed in the first few years of life. One can see that adults have thicker, but fewer synaptic connections.

Everything in a child’s environment — experiences, relationships with parents and caregivers and environmental factors — influences brain development and growth.

It is no surprise, then, that early experiences have a profound impact on a child’s future ability to succeed in school, work and life.

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The Importance of Early Interventions

Secure and nurturing early childhood experiences form strong neural connections, which enable children to acquire language and communication skills, learn how to interact with people and their surroundings, and develop the ability to regulate their emotions.

Sadly, too many children — especially those living in under-resourced communities — face chronic stress and adversity which hinder their ability to learn and increase their chances of falling behind developmentally and academically for years to come. Fortunately, there’s a wide body of research that demonstrates that interventions, particularly in the first years of life, make a difference.

Studies on high-quality, comprehensive early childhood programs, such as the Carolina Abecedarian Project, the Perry Preschool Project, the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, as well as Educare schools, demonstrate that early childhood interventions promote positive results in emotional development, school readiness, academic achievement and family life.

As part of our effort to become the country’s most trusted resource for early childhood knowledge Start Early conducts research with the overarching goal of generating new knowledge and contributing to the field’s understanding of how to improve the quality of programs and systems, promote positive outcomes, and transform practices and policies at scale.

Amanda Stein, director of research & evaluation
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How does the science on brain development influence our research on early interventions?

The research conducted at Start Early is anchored by science. Building upon decades of studies on brain development and early childhood education, we conduct high-quality research and help translate this research into practice — with the goal of improving outcomes for children and families early in life.

One example of how our research comes to life is demonstrated by the work of Educare schools. Start Early opened the first Educare school in 2000 on Chicago’s South Side using a research-based curriculum and serving low-income infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families. Now part of a nationwide network of 25 schools, known as the Educare Learning Network, these schools are prime examples of the positive outcomes stemming from high-quality early education programs.

After just one year at an Educare school, children show improved language skills, fewer problem behaviors, and more positive interactions with parents. Children who enrolled in Educare schools earlier, and stayed until they entered kindergarten, also displayed stronger vocabulary skills — just one of many positive indicators of effective early intervention. Years of rigorous evaluations of Educare programs indicate these outcomes.

Yet, Educare is just one example of how existing science and our own rigorous research join to create and promote high-quality early learning experiences. Ultimately, our research aims to reinforce the existing evidence supporting the importance of early education, while also informing and advancing improvements in the field as a whole.

There’s been a national discussion about increasing our aptitude in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)/science technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM). America is underperforming other industrial nations, and these areas are increasingly playing a critical role in career success.

Much of the conversation focuses on improvements in the middle and high school years. But we can begin building STEM/STEAM skills much earlier than that—as soon as a child starts speaking.

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Some young children are innately interested in: learning how things work, building things and taking things apart. But all children can be enticed into STEM/STEAM learning through whatever they’re already interested in. Both STEM and STEAM support play, wonder and curiosity; but STEAM includes an art component that allows children to create and design with intention. STEM and STEAM encourage children to solve problems by using inquiry and investigation.

Since young children tend to ask lots of questions, you can introduce STEM/STEAM basics by following these simple “CHIA” steps:

  • Curiosity: “So glad you asked!”
  • Hypothesis: “Why don’t you make a guess?”
  • Investigation: “Let’s look into it!”
  • Analysis: “Why do you think that happened?”

Before beginning any activity with your toddler, ask them what they think is going to happen. Then ask why they think that. They’ve just created a hypothesis and given their logic for that hypothesis—the foundation of all scientific exploration. By then creating experiments with your toddler and talking about what you observe, you’re setting them up to plan, brainstorm, build, and solve problems exactly like scientists and engineers do.

Ideas for You and Your Child:

  1. Build a ramp for toy cars to roll down. Have your toddler race two cars down the ramp. Ask them to predict which one will get to the bottom first. Then have them play with how to make the cars faster or slower. For example, if you put a small stone on the car, does it make it go faster? Buildable toys provide great opportunities for experimentation. What happens to the speed when your toddler makes the car bigger, heavier, or longer? This is experimentation, and it’s fun!
  2. When you go for a walk, you can guide the conversation, or let your child come up with their own experiments. If you see an animal, play with how softly you can talk before the animal notices you. Or ask your child why the squirrels race around the tree. Right answers are not the goal—this is about asking questions and predicting the answer.

Remember that it’s okay for both you and your child to answer “I don’t know” to any question. It’s asking the question that’s important because that is where all science begins.

STEAM At-Home Activity: Building Structures

While at home, parents can introduce building structures with their children. The materials for this activity consist of wide popsicle sticks, clear plastic drinking cups and small cube blocks. Parents can encourage their child to build a structure while engaging in conversation about how many cups will it take to build the structure. What will happen if you use fewer cups and more popsicle sticks? How high can you build? The children can learn about balance, height, measurement and a host of wonderful things. This at-home activity needs little to no planning, but a readiness to think outside of the box.

Don’t underestimate the incredible thinking skills that young children have. With just a playful shift in word choice, we can allow for a dramatic shift in getting our babies ready for a STEM/STEAM education!

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two children coloring togetherParents in Chicago often enroll their children ages 3-5 in community-based organizations because they love and trust their local early learning program and because the program provides more convenient hours and comprehensive, year-long services for families. With support from Crown Family Philanthropies, Start Early launched a new initiative this summer in partnership with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Chicago’s six federally funded Head Start grant recipients to make special education services more accessible for the city’s children ages 3-5 who are enrolled in community-based Head Start programs.

Currently in the city of Chicago, special education services are not provided in community-based settings where many children are enrolled. Instead, children attend both their community-based program and a school-based program, which involves bus rides and multiple transitions between classrooms in one day. Some parents who rely on community-based settings for early learning may forgo these services that their child needs to avoid distress and challenging behaviors that can follow the multiple transitions.

Even when children receive their special education services in a CPS classroom, those supports do not follow them to their community-based setting. This leaves children unable to fully access and participate in the classroom and it leaves teachers without the support they need to ensure the best quality educational experience. As a result, children may experience barriers to healthy development. The current system also poses long-term challenges for CPS as they work to ensure equitable access to special education and kindergarten readiness for all students.

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The goal of this project is to ensure access to inclusive special education services for all children with disabilities enrolled in community-based early childhood programs in Chicago. To this end, we are working in partnership with families and educators to develop, implement, assess, and institutionalize feasible strategies and approaches for delivering special education services to children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) onsite in the Head Start programs in which they are enrolled.

Start Early staff are nationally recognized leaders in special education for young children. Learn more about Start Early’s recommendations for strengthening early childhood inclusion for young children with disabilities, and contact us to learn how you can support high-quality, accessible education for all young children.

The Crown family has worked for decades alongside Start Early to increase access to equitable, high-quality early education and care for all children and families in Chicago, including recent support for the launch of Every Child Ready Chicago, a public-private partnership to support access to high-quality early childhood education in the city.

Start Early remains grateful to Crown Family Philanthropies as we champion early learning and care and close the opportunity gap for our youngest learners.

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We don’t know much about art, but we know what we like—and that’s seeing young children find ways to express themselves and spark creativity while they’re learning. Whether you have a little Picasso on your hands or you are actively looking for ways to introduce art to your child, we have tips for you!

We asked our Start Early experts for their advice for parents and caregivers on the best ways to use art to support your child’s learning and development. And the teachers of Room 114 at Educare Chicago, a program of Start Early, delivered.

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Check out what Annaliese Newmeyer, Charlene Macklin, Lisa LaRue have shared when it comes to why art is so important for our youngest learners and how you can make it part of your everyday routine:

What are the benefits of introducing art to young learners?

Art is an important part of child’s development in young learners. It not only provides children with a way to express themselves and spark their creativity, but it also provides teachers with a glimpse into how a child sees the world and what is important to them. Something as small as how a child focuses on a butterfly’s wing when drawing a butterfly, or the details of their hair in a self-portrait; whatever it is, art can be a window into a child’s mind.

Going to school can be traumatic for young children, they have to say goodbye to their favorite people and spend the day following rules and sharing, so art can be a way to relax and meet a child’s social and emotional needs as a form of self-regulation. And most of all, art is fun!

Are there any specific cognitive or physical developmental abilities that art projects help support in early learners?

By holding different types of drawing materials your child is actively working on their fine motor development. Art also works a different part of your brain than science or math since there is a no wrong answer.

Breaking down art projects into steps helps develop cognitive abilities. For example, when we introduce painting, we teach the children the steps: dip- paint- clean, dip- paint- clean. We can even make it into a little song and dance to help the kids remember to dip their paint brush in the paint, paint and then clean off the brush to get a new color.

Art is also very scientific and mathematical. You are asking big important questions when you want to know what happens when you mix colors or layer textures or create patterns.

What at-home projects you would recommend for infants and toddlers?

This is the best time to introduce different art materials to your child. The more experience they have with crayons, markers and paints the better they will be able to express themselves as they get older.

  • Focus on the sensory aspect and talk about texture.
  • Put words to your child’s actions, “you are touching the cold, smooth red paint. It’s red like an apple or a firetruck. The red is very vibrant on the white paper.”
  • Be playful and enjoy it. It won’t look like Pinterest, it will be messy.
  • Be prepared with wipes, paper towels and clothing that can get dirty.
  • Give your children a material and observe how they use it, what can you add to make the experience fuller or to extend their interest?
  • Use age-appropriate materials like chunky crayons, no markers, non-toxic paint, play dough, contact paper, tissue paper.

What at-home projects you would recommend for children ages 3-5?

  • Collaging
  • Cutting (an important fine motor skill)
  • Drawing pictures and describing the image
  • Telling a story about their art
  • Bookmaking
  • Junk art with material from the recycling bin

What is your favorite aspect of teaching art to early learners and why?

It’s fun because you can learn about the child through their art. You learn if they mind getting messy and how they see the world around them. One student we had was so amazing with watercolors, every time we brought out the watercolors, she would paint the most amazing pictures. She struggles in other areas in the classroom but working with the paint gave her a confidence that was then reflected throughout the classroom.

You get to watch them create; we might not understand what they are painting or drawing but they do. For example, we might see a red circle but to them it’s a volcano. They get so excited about their creations.

Art is a form of expression, so it helps us be able to see deeper into their minds and what they find important. For example, we might give children wings, a body, black and yellow stripes of paper and glue and ask them to make a bee and to see the variations in what a bee will look like is amazing! Some kids focus on the stripes or the wings or even where they will place the eyes is fascinating.

Any other tips for incorporating art into children’s learning?

  • It’s not about the product it’s about the process!
  • Give them a provocation (example: have them draw a picture of their fish).
  • Take paper and crayons everywhere you go and have your child record what they see around them.
  • Have your child tell you a story about what they create.
  • Annaliese Newmeyer, M.Ed, has been a Mentor Coach and Lead Teacher at Educare Chicago for the past 9 years. Annaliese enjoys reading children’s books and gardening with children. She feels like it is important to teach children to take care of others and heal each other through actions rather than words.
  • Charlene Macklin has been a teacher at Educare Chicago for 9 years and is currently working on her PEL license at the University of Illinois Chicago. She enjoys arts and crafts and hands-on experiences to build children’s understanding of the world around them.
  • Lisa LaRue has been a teacher for over 25 years, and at Educare Chicago for 15 years. Her motto is, “We are a Classroom Community,” and she works to establish a cooperative community through learning. She is an expert in preparing children for kindergarten.

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By Joan Lombardi

Over the holidays, I heard the term metaverse across multiple media platforms. From TV talk shows and the news to newspaper articles, the concept was everywhere, and I wanted to understand what it means. Meta seems to have several meanings depending on how it is used – as a prefix it sometimes means transformation or transcending.  In the “tech world” the metaverse seems to be referring to some overarching system that would transcend the different parts that make up that world today.

While not totally grasping this emerging concept, these ideas are not completely new to a student of child development. We can relate to the idea of an overarching system evolving beyond its current collection of parts to create an all-encompassing approach to achieving a common goal.

We know health, learning and behavior are connected, and holistic child development requires an integration of these elements that transcends their parts; health affects learning, learning affects health, and social-emotional development affects them both. We also know development begins early, with each stage building on another. Moreover, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory has grounded our thinking: we can’t separate the child from the well-being of the family. They both depend on supportive communities and policies.

As we enter 2022, let’s recommit our energies to creating a system that could be thought of as meta-care. This approach would go beyond a collection of isolated programs and services to an interconnected system supporting the whole developing child. In this community, the parent, childcare provider, physicians, home visitors, teachers, local librarians and housing agencies all matter for a successful start in life.

Last year, I had the opportunity to talk to several parents, providers and local leaders across the country. Each was working to build these connections to make their community “the best place to raise a child.” I recognized four common elements in these initiatives:

  • Firm beliefs in centering all actions on family and caregiver voices to improve their living and working conditions
  • Commitment to equity
  • Processes for data tracking and mapping services
  • Continuous improvement mechanisms that include ongoing partnerships across services and sectors

The country’s future depends on how we care for young children and families. In the upcoming year, our hope remains that landmark federal legislation is passed to provide the critical investments we need. When this happens, implementation will move to the states and communities and new opportunities to work together will emerge. We must renew our efforts of support to assure a robust continuum of care: from healthy births to children thriving at age three, at five and beyond.

It doesn’t matter if we use a new term like meta-care; what matters is that we intensify our pursuit of better outcomes for all children. Let’s allow the needs of families and caregivers to guide our actions, transcend old boundaries and make a system of caring a reality for the next generation.


Dr. Joan Lombardi is a national and international thought leader in early childhood. She has been a key collaborator and consultant to Start Early in a variety of ways over the years. 

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By Mina Hong and Carrie Gillispie


Amid all the disruption to in-person learning due to the pandemic, it’s time to focus on children with disabilities, which account for 1.2 million young children birth through five. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), first enacted in 1975, inclusive early care and education (ECE) programs, where children with disabilities learn alongside children without disabilities, is integrated in the federal special education law. Inclusive education has many benefits for all children, regardless of disability status. In fact, inclusion is so essential to child development that it is integrated in federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) requirement, IDEA calls for young children with developmental delays and disabilities to receive special education and related services alongside typically developing peers in all settings. For young children, LRE includes school-based preschool and community-based settings like Head Start and child care; yet, far too few children with disabilities have had access to these high-quality inclusive options.

Now, Congress has the power to change that with the Build Back Better Act (BBB) and increased IDEA funding in the federal Fiscal Year 2022 (FFY2022) budget. By leveraging these federal investments, states can revolutionize ECE to be truly inclusive and equitable for our nation’s youngest learners with delays and disabilities.

BBB combined with anticipated IDEA funding increases in FFY2022 provides a historic opportunity to expand full inclusion across early childhood settings. BBB significantly invests in expanding equitable access to ECE for families who have been historically underserved — families with lower incomes, families of color, and families of young children with disabilities. Though BBB prioritizes enrollment of young children with delays and disabilities in ECE programs, additional dedicated funding in BBB to support their inclusion is not explicitly defined. Therefore, it is paramount that these expanded early learning opportunities are directed to underserved children with delays and disabilities – particularly children of color – in school and community-based settings that best meet families’ and children’s needs. The anticipated funding increase in the FFY2022 budget will further support the delivery of early intervention, special education and related services to young children under IDEA Part C and IDEA Part B 619. Together, BBB and the IDEA funding proposed in FFY2022 can support the expansion of full inclusion across high quality ECE in all settings.

Despite best efforts, Local Education Agencies (LEAs) face barriers to providing inclusive community-based services outside of school district classrooms including limited guidance, budgetary constraints, and workforce shortages. LEA leaders have expressed the need for guidance and examples of effective service delivery and staffing models to support inclusive special education and related services to all children residing in their districts across ECE settings. Unfortunately, the children who are disproportionately impacted by this are young children from families with lower income, particularly families of color. This group of children are often forced to attend both their community-based program and a school-based program to receive special education services, resulting in multiple bus rides and transitions in a single day. Some families even forego critical special education services to avoid these transitions. Additionally, the workforce crisis that has plagued the early childhood field has led to a staff shortage, which is also acutely felt by the early childhood special education field. While BBB includes provisions to boost compensation for the ECE workforce, funding is also needed to attract and retain special educators. Coupling BBB and FFY2022 funding can support LEAs and their ECE partners as they create equitable systems to ensure programs have the financial resources, workforce capacity, and clear federal guidance needed to support equitable inclusion.

Given this, it is paramount that the U.S. Senate pass the Build Back Better Act in a timely manner while Congress approves the FFY2022 budget with the IDEA Part C and Part B 619 funding increases. Once passed, the federal government should provide clear guidance on how states and communities will ensure children receive special education and related services in all settings. And states, communities, and LEAs should plan how they will collaborate to equitably support young children with disabilities in early childhood settings expanded through new federal dollars. Here’s how:

  • Clearly delineating in state plans the ways in which state and local policies and practices will operationalize equitable access and quality in ECE for young children with disabilities and developmental delays across settings. Specifically, plans should prioritize families with low incomes, dual language learners, and from other underserved populations as defined in BBB.
  • Prioritizing inclusion in mixed delivery settings, including giving all educators access to resources on high-quality inclusion practices and giving LEAs clear guidance and sufficient funding to do so. This also includes professional development and systems of support for educators to reduce the suspension and expulsion of young children with disabilities and children of color.
  • Providing equitable and accessible pathways to obtaining early childhood special education qualifications in order to strengthen the workforce; providing service scholarships and loan forgiveness programs for special education trainees to increase incentives to enter the profession; and most importantly, providing adequate compensation for the entire ECE workforce including special education teachers.
  • Collecting and publicly reporting data on district- and program-level adherence to LRE across early childhood settings and disciplinary data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, family income level, gender, dual language learner status, and disability category under IDEA.

Young children with disabilities have always faced systemic barriers to the strong start they deserve. Now is the time for Congress, states, LEAs, and communities to each do their part and collaborate, so that young children with delays and disabilities can access the equitable and inclusive services and supports they need and deserve.


With contributions by Karen Berman, Katie Fisher and Amanda Schwartz

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