Early education an important investment

by Michelle Saxton
Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Staff photo by Joshua Curry 

Rozetta Bryant, an assistant teacher at the Cape Fear Community College Child Development Center, plays with Hannah Chase and Leila Guyton in the toddler class on Wednesday, Dec. 19.

New Hanover County Smart Start officials want to raise awareness about the importance of early education and a shortage of high quality, regulated care for infants.

“As a community when we’re concerned about children growing up to be healthy – socially and emotionally – and being successful in life, it’s got to start in the very earliest years,” Janet Nelson, executive director of Smart Start in Wilmington, said Monday, Dec. 17. 

North Carolina’s licensed child-care facilities use a 5-star rating system that considers program, quality and education, including education levels of lead teachers, the state Division of Child Development and Early Education’s website showed.

The state was above the minimum standard 3.25 average star rating for subsidized child placements in regulated care from infants to age 5; however, percentages were below minimum standards for infants receiving subsidies in 4- and 5-star facilities and infants in facilities with at least five lead teacher education points, according to a North Carolina Partnership for Children study released earlier in 2012.

“Sometimes people think we just need a babysitter,” Nelson said. “It’s so much more than a rocking chair. It’s about the talking and the bonding … the eye contact that is the foundation for strong emotional health.”

Approximately 700 new neural connections form each second during the first few years, with connections peaking for vision, hearing and language during the first year and higher cognitive function about age 1, stated Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. 

Studies show that every $1 invested in early learning programs for low-income children brings a $4 to $9 return through increased earnings and tax revenues in adulthood and reduced special education, welfare and crime costs, the center’s website reported.

“What happens here affects the economy,” said Leslie King, administrator of Cape Fear Community College’s Child Development Center, a 5-star facility. 

How caregivers connect with children makes a difference, such as through empathy and vocal cues that may include simply telling children you are going to wipe their nose before doing so, King said.

“There’s a little bit of dignity involved there,” King said Dec. 17, adding, “It develops their vocabulary … It helps them make a connection and pay attention to the person who is facilitating their day.”

New Hanover County has about 140 private, public and nonprofit licensed child care facilities, Nelson said.

Infant classrooms require lower staff-child ratios, which can make it more expensive, Nelson said.

“There are people raising children beautifully who don’t have early childhood degrees,” Nelson said. “But if you’re paying for regulated care … you should expect the qualifications of the teachers with even the very youngest children to be as high as those of the older children.”

Experience is valuable, too, Nelson added.

Meanwhile, figures were below minimum standards for infants receiving early intervention services, the Partnership for Children report showed.

“The earlier you can identify issues with children the earlier you can begin to work toward making sure they are living to their fullest potential,” said Denise Mbani, resource and information unit manager for the North Carolina Infant-Toddler Program, which helps children from birth to age 3 who have developmental disabilities or delays.

Families with concerns about delayed child development in thinking, learning, moving, seeing or hearing can contact their local Children’s Developmental Services Agency, Mbani said Tuesday, Dec. 18.

Smart Start, a network of nonprofit local partnerships providing support and resources for children’s health, families and early care and education, is funded primarily by the state. 

Gov. Bev Perdue’s biennial budget proposal includes $15 million to expand student access to Smart Start.

Nelson credited state lawmakers with taking early education seriously but said they must recognize the power of investing in the earliest years.

Smart Start statewide received $182 million (cut from $188 million) in 2010-2011 and $151 million in 2011-2012, according to North Carolina Partnership for Children’s report to the General Assembly in November. 

Funding subsidizes childcare, helps teachers study early education, provides child care centers with intervention specialists and librarians and addresses other needs.

“Every time there are reductions it hurts children,” Nelson said.

Focusing on early childhood development and mental health is timely, Nelson said, given the recent shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.

While details of the shooter’s childhood are unclear, the importance of early mental health is among areas Smart Start tries to address.

“We don’t know whether it was something that was addressed in his very formative years or whether his family and his mother had support in working with him,” Nelson said. “But if we’re going to think about preventing these things then the investment has to be in the foundation of child development.”

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