Policy Resource

Learning Happens Right From the Start!

Jun 18, 2013

June 5: On this Day of Action, early learning is on the move.

Organized by the Strong Start for Children Campaign, children’s advocates all around the country are celebrating the fact that President Obama has put early learning on the national policy map, engaging in activities that highlight the importance of investments in early childhood education. But don’t think that children begin preparing for school only when they’re big enough to strap on a backpack. In fact, they have been preparing for school since the day they first opened their eyes.

It turns out that the magical things that happen when you’re a baby—smiling at your mom or dad to make them smile back, cuddling up during a lullaby, playing eensy-weensy spider—are starting you on the path to success in school and in life. Close relationships are the context within which our earliest experiences unfold. That pleasurable interchange of smiling? It forges neural pathways and boosts your self-esteem. Being able to form those relationships? You’ll need that so you can trust in teachers and connect with peers in school. Learning to communicate is the basic building block of early literacy. With a lullaby, you are hearing language and associating it with security. Finger and singing games are not only fun, they help associate language with concepts like up and down.

Baby learning is not about a set curriculum. It just…happens. Babies set their own agendas as they find anything and most everything interesting. The role of their caregivers, whether parents or early care and learning professionals, is to facilitate their exploration—in other words, to provide positive early learning experiences.

Too many babies don’t get the good start they need to become confident explorers. Their families may be struggling just to meet basic needs, their parents too stressed for unhurried games of peek-a-boo. One indicator: almost half of all infants and toddlers live in low-income families; one in four lives in poverty. They are at greater risk for experiencing unstable housing, lacking adequate nutrition, and living in unhealthy environments. Their parents often have high rates of maternal depression. They have fewer opportunities for rich early learning experiences: high-quality child care often is out of reach, and Early Head Start serves less than 4% of eligible children.

When brains are forging 700 new neural connections every second in the first three years of life, no wonder persistent stress can be toxic to young children’s early development. Many children in the lowest socio-economic group show signs of falling behind before their first birthday in measures of cognitive and social-emotional development. By age two, the gap is considerable. By prekindergarten, children are already playing catch-up—if they are lucky enough to be in a quality program. Without strong interventions and supports, the gap only widens during the elementary years.

The good news is that we already know how to give babies a strong start with programs that address the needs of children and families comprehensively. President Obama proposes to expand these programs, with innovations to spread quality services further. He would put $1.4 billion toward Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships to infuse high standards into child care programs and approximately double the number of eligible children with working parents in Early Head Start. He would dramatically expand the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, pumping $15 billion over 10 years into a program that states, communities, and families all over the country have already embraced for the parenting and early development services it brings into the home.

Coupled with the President’s $75 billion proposal for federal-state partnerships that would lead to preschool for all four-year-olds, these programs for the youngest children would build a birth-to-five continuum to put children firmly on the path to success in school and life. It’s a strategy that builds early learning services the way brains are built: from the bottom up.

What’s in it for the rest of us? For one thing, it saves money in the long run—for every dollar spent on high-quality early learning programs, taxpayers save between $3.78 to $17.07 on future public expenditures. But something larger is at stake. The babies and toddlers who today are learning persistence from that determined spider, tomorrow will be the backbone of the workforce our nation needs to be competitive.

The message to policymakers could not be more clear: Take action to invest in early learning! Babies need to start strong if America is to finish strong in the global economy.

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