Babies & Toddlers – Our Best Investment?

New Report Makes the Case for Better Care in the Earliest Years

More access to high-quality early childhood care and education. Greater exposure to rich language.
Earlier identification of learning challenges. Better partnerships with families.

These are just some of the things a new report from the Indiana Happy Babies Brain Trust says are needed for Indiana’s 250,000 infants and toddlers – children birth to age three – to thrive.

The report title, Getting Ready for School Starts at Birth, may be provocative for some. But, the facts back it up. As the report states, a child’s “early experiences shape the brain’s architecture to either support a strong or fragile foundation for learning, health and success.” Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman has said that programs targeted toward infants and toddlers offer the highest rate of return on investment in human capital. The Happy Babies Brain Trust, an expert Indiana working group formed in 2014 with the generous support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Zero to Three, makes a similar case in this new report. The working group was also recently recognized by Mental Health America of Indiana‘s Mental Health and Addiction Prevention Team’s 2015 Heroes for Recovery award.

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Getting Ready for School Starts at Birth argues that a “system” of caring for infants and toddlers must focus on doing a variety of things well, such as supporting strong family relationships, promoting good health and expanding access to developmentally-rich early learning experiences. This puts families, early childhood programs, family support programs, community institutions (such as, libraries) and others who interact with young children—like pediatricians—into a strongly interdependent relationship.

The strength of this relationship has taken on more importance with 62% of Hoosier mothers (in this case, of infants) in the workforce. As Robert Putnam has written eloquently, whether we like it or not, all kids are “our kids.” Our futures are intertwined and how we care for our youngest children has out-sized influence on Indiana’s academic readiness, the productivity of our workforce, poverty rates, crime rates, and civic engagement.

At Early Learning Indiana, we are the state’s largest provider of early care and education services for infants and toddlers—we serve over 300 every year across 11 centers. We also help parents find good infant and toddler care in other programs through our Child Care Answers team and we work to expand access to high-quality care through our Early Head Start-Child Care partnership effort, as well as our statewide capacity-building and advocacy via Partnerships for Early Learners. We are committed to helping build a stronger “system” for young children in Indiana.

In service of that goal, I want to highlight several of the key recommendations in the report:

  • Improving transitions between family support programs and early learning programs.
    While over 13,000 infants and toddlers are in family support programs, which typically involve home visits to help children thrive, that represents just 11% of eligible families in the state. More can be done to expand these programs to additional families, as well as to connect families to high-quality early learning programs that provide positive supports that families need. In the coming year, we will support efforts that align such programs and provide seamless transitions for families.
  • Promoting early language acquisition through community partnerships, family literacy efforts, and training for professionals.
    The research is striking—young children in families with less income are exposed to 30 million fewer words than their peers! Families need more books to read. Communities need to encourage and promote the importance of talking to infants and toddlers. We have started a texting initiative, Bloom Bright, which prompts parents of young children to have consistent and language-rich family time. And we are supporting 150 preschool and pre-K teachers to focus on strengthening their interactions with children, through a rigorous 10-course training called MMCI. Over the next year, we will do our part to highlight the importance of language acquisition.
  • Creating more high-quality infant and toddlers spots in early childhood programs.
    In two-thirds of Hoosier families, all parents work – in single or two-parent homes. An estimated 162,500 infants and toddlers are in need of child care because of their parent’s labor force participation. However, there are only 25,000 high-quality slots. While friend, family, and neighbor care is an appropriate option for many families, it should be supplemented with more formal, full-day programs that are focused on academic enrichment. Research has shown high-quality programs do a good job at preparing infants and toddlers for future life success, bring parents into relationship with one another—peer support can help with parental stress—and attend to the complex nutrition and health needs of young children. Through our statewide capacity-building work, we intend to support expansion of high-quality programs and business training to support models that include infant and toddler care.

It is never too early to invest in our children. Families, programs, and communities all have a role to play and we can only attend to the complex needs of our youngest learners by working together.

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