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Early-Childhood Education Begins With Parents

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Pam Darnall is CEO of Family & Children's Place, a Louisville Kentucky based agency serving families and children affected by violence and abuse.

Early Childhood Education is a phrase and a topic that seems to be everywhere. It's an agenda item, a priority, a strategic plan and a legislative focus. It's the topic of discussion in staff rooms, board meetings, TED Talks; it's even front and center in the White House.

The benefits of high-quality, early childhood education are irrefutable. During their early years, children go through critical stages of brain development. High-quality early childhood education can have long-lasting, beneficial effects on children, their families and their communities. The result is both improved academic outcomes and economic savings to schools and states.

So why in recent discussions are we calling it "The Early Childhood Education Debate?" The answer lies in determining how early education begins.

Educational intervention at the earliest stages means addressing the needs of at-risk, new parents. Children growing up in poverty fall behind their middle-class peers in development from the time they say their first words. Verbal interactions between parents and children in the context of play and shared reading are critical for school readiness, but happen less frequently in families with low socio-economic status.

James Heckman is one of the nation's top economists studying human development. Thirteen years ago, he won the Nobel Prize for economics. In an April, 2013 article in The New York Times, Heckman is quoted as saying, "The gap is there before kids walk into kindergarten. School neither increases nor reduces it."

Study after study has confirmed that the younger the child, the more devastating poverty is to future success as a student and an adult. With so many children living in poverty in our own neighborhoods, we must ensure the most vulnerable children receive the quality early education necessary for success later in life. We already know that children who live with neglect and abuse are more likely to perpetuate the cycle of child abuse and neglect.

The solution truly begins with high-risk, first-time parents. There is no doubt that quality early childhood education has the greatest positive effect on children from lower socioeconomic status. Reaching parents early is the key.

More than 1 in 4 children in Kentucky are now living in poverty, according to Census Bureau data from the American Community Survey, released in September, 2013. Child poverty in Kentucky increased to 26.5 percent in 2012 from 25.6 percent in 2009, bringing the total number of children who live in poverty to 263,819. The poverty threshold in 2012 for a family of four with two children is an annual income below $23,283.

Family & Children's Place has provided first-time parents a high quality visitation program for over 20 years. Last year the agency became the sole service provider of Health Access Nurturing Development Services (HANDS) in Jefferson County, Kentucky. HANDS provides voluntary visitation for first-time and expectant parents that begins during pregnancy or shortly after the child's birth. Our services help foster healthy pregnancy and births, stable child growth and development, safe homes and self-sufficient families.

We are excited about the outcome results for the at-risk families who receive our HANDS services. Last year, 98% of children were current on immunizations and had a primary care doctor, 96% were free from abuse and neglect, and 92% were developmentally on target. Eighty-seven percent of high-risk pre-natal mothers delivered babies weighing more than 5.5 lbs with fewer than 3% having medical complications. These outcomes mitigate the insidious effects that poverty, lack of education and the associated stresses have on young families.

The earlier the intervention, the more we can ensure homes free from violence, abuse and neglect. Providing support for positive parent-child interaction and connecting families to a broader network of support resources are all essential to a child's success, in school and later in life. One of the most successful programs for this intervention is HANDS.

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