Why Should All Citizens Care About Supporting Early Childhood?

Early childhood is a time of significant development. The growth that occurs lays the foundation for the future health, behavior, and learning of every child. These first years impact not just their future schooling, but the rest of their lives. Every moment matters for young children. In this FAQ we will look at why these years are important and how we can support families so that every child has the chance to thrive during this time. As we dive into this conversation, our focus must be rooted in how best to support efforts that promote the early development of every child, because every child is created in God’s image.

In the first five years of a child’s life the brain is very busy. Its main job is to build its foundational structure. This work will exist for the rest of the child’s life. To shape the brain’s structure, a child’s genes and environment interact with each other. The genes provide the layout for the brain’s structure, but experience determines the strength of it. To build a strong foundational structure, the brain needs responsive interactions with parents. That is why it is important that families are able to create a home that helps their children develop.

It is not always easy for families to provide a home that helps their children develop. Homes where there are high and constant levels of stress can make it difficult for parents to spend time with their children. High levels of stress can be caused by poverty, abuse, neglect, and other problems in the family. These experiences can then disrupt the child’s brain development. Both good and bad early experiences are built into the brain’s development. Good experiences help the brain develop a strong structure. Bad experiences make a weak structure. As a result, early experiences affect the overall physical, mental, and emotional health of children.

As a child grows, the brain’s structure continues to be important. For example, the skills for reading and writing begin before children can talk. The words that parents use around their children is the foundation for later learning. In some families, parents are not always able to spend as much time interacting with their children as parents in other families. This can affect children in many ways. One way is that the less time children spend with their parents, the less words they are exposed to. This creates a word gap. Some children know more words than other children. Because of this and other effects, children who spend less interactive time with their parents tend to enter pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten already behind the other students.

The struggles children face at home and during schooling in early childhood usually continue through the rest of their education. The older a child is, the harder it is for them to catch up in school. This is because the brain’s structure stops changing as much as it did in early childhood. Overall, children who start school behind usually stay behind. Waiting until a child enters Kindergarten, or later, to help them have the foundation needed to succeed in school is not enough.

Every child is created by God and has dignity and worth. All children should have the opportunity to grow up in homes where they are talked to and played with, and in homes where they are cared for and their development is supported. This is not easy for many families to provide. Although caring for children is mainly the responsibility of families, communities also have a lot of influence in their lives and have traditionally supported families in upholding their responsibilities.

There have been many different community-based responses to support families. They have focused on helping families with different problems, from parent training and child care to health and nutrition. For example, the Nurse-Family Partnership in Denver, Colorado has nurses make home visits to first-time moms who live in poverty. The nurses aid the moms in making a good home for their babies. In addition, the Common Good City Farm supports families by helping low-income community members in Washington D.C. meet their food needs in a variety of ways. They sell the healthy food they grow at a reduced price. Also, they have workshops to teach community members about growing and cooking healthy food.

Another response, one that has national attention, is improving access to pre-K. When it comes to this discussion, it is important to remember several things. First, only having one type of pre-K program will not be right for all children. When Christians Investing in Education talks about K-12 education, we stress that there needs to be a diversity of schools to fit the needs of a diversity of students. This is also true for pre-K and child care programs. Secondly, early childhood is about more than formal schooling, so improving access to pre-K can only be one part of what supports families.

Programs and policies created at the community, state, and national levels to help families with pre-K and child care should also support low-income parents who are able to stay home and care for their children in a healthy home. Parents who cannot stay home, or where the home has high levels of stress, should also be able to decide who should take care of their children. These decisions should not take financial support away from the families. This means that the best funding model for supporting families during a child’s early years works to help families make decisions about the best environment for their child. As part of this, it is important that parents are educated about the choices that are available. They should be aware of all of the options, including programs at churches and community organizations, and care in homes or with trusted relatives. Parents are to be the experts when it comes to their children. What happens during the pre-K years should help aid their ability to make choices in the best interest of their children.

The challenges many children face in early childhood cannot be solved by pre-K and child care programs alone. As mentioned before, by the time children enter pre-K, many are already behind. While the classroom is part of education, learning is a lifelong process beginning at home. Because of this, some community-based responses have had a dual focus. They work to ensure a safe learning environment for children and empower their caregivers with training, information, or resources so they can continue teaching their children at home.

An example of this type of response is the Parent-Child Home Program by the Holy Family Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This program works with children so that they are ready for school, while also strengthening parent-child relationships. In Anacostia, a struggling neighborhood in D.C., there are vending machines with free books for children. While the purpose of this project is to help school-age children maintain their learning over the summer, there are other positive effects. Improving the access that families have to children books gives parents the opportunity to read to and spend time with their children. Little Free Libraries have had similar effects in communities across the country.

Early childhood is important. The growth that happens in a child’s first years of life is the foundation for the rest of his or her life. Because every child is created in God’s image, every child has dignity and worth. Their value should be respected from the moment they are born. They should grow and develop in strong families with supportive communities. Policies and programs impact families for better or worse. They can either help or hurt them. Family leave, money for child care, tax credits, and access to pre-K are just a few of the things that affect the ability of parents to make a good home for their children. When trying to make early childhood better, it is important to focus on helping both children and the adults caring for them. All citizens should encourage policies and programs in their communities that support families and the roles of parents. Improving these approaches can help support families as they take care of their children. 

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