All In: The Importance of An Early Investment in Children
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
Young children learn so much from the adults around them. They learn how to walk, talk and act. They learn through verbal and nonverbal communication in the home, as well as in formal and informal education settings.
As researchers learn more about the brain and its development, they are finding that exposure to language is essential for the development of the neural connections in the brain of infants and young children. Dana Suskind, a pediatric neurosurgeon at the University of Chicago, states in an article in The Boston Globe:
“Your heart and lungs come out fully developed when you are born, but the brain is completely dependent on what it encounters on its ride to full development, and especially in the first three years there’s a huge amount of brain development that occurs: 80 to 85 percent of the physical brain will be developed in that time. And that brain is absolutely dependent on the language input, parent talk, and interaction, which is the key catalyst for creating those neural connections.”
I have been fascinated with the concept that children who are born into poverty will be exposed to 30 million fewer words by the time they reach their 4th birthdays than children in affluent homes. This creates a huge advantage for some students in their access to learning and the opportunity to benefit from school when they enter kindergarten. Young children who live in language-rich environments are more likely to enter school ready to learn.
So, what can we do? We cannot eliminate those differences, but we can reduce disparities by providing high quality early learning opportunities that are rich in language exposure. We must especially focus on providing this for children who will not have these experiences without the support of non-profit, public or private providers. Such programs can and should be available in every corner of our county. It will take a coordinated effort involving the whole community to reach every child.
I believe that to reach this goal, we should support two initiatives:
- Montgomery Moving Forward: Mobilizing Leaders to Solve Our Biggest Problems Together recently prepared a call to action on early care and education. They propose key actions to ensure that all families have access to affordable high-quality early child care and education.
- The Kirwan Commission is a statewide effort to examine innovation and excellence in education. One of its recommendations calls for Maryland to provide funding for universal prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds and low-income 3-year-olds.
So, in thinking about James Baldwin’s quote, when the youngest among us—those under the age of 5—are adults in two or three decades, I wonder who they will imitate. I hope they imitate the people in this community who worked tirelessly to ensure high quality early care and learning. I hope they imitate the adults in our community who took care of them. And I hope they do this by taking care of the needs of the youngest children in their future communities. We are their role models. Let’s take this job seriously.