The role of families in early childhood development
Much attention has been given recently to the importance of the early years of a child’s life. Many articles have cited the statistic that 80 percent of a child’s brain is developed by age 3, and 90 percent by age 5, and that optimal brain development leads to better outcomes for children in terms of being ready for school, being more prepared for work, and having better mental and physical health, even as an adult. These better outcomes have been quantified. For example, the research on The Perry Preschool project demonstrates a 7 to 10 percent return on investment for every dollar spent. This helps to explain the great focus on making sure that every child has access to high quality preschool education, including the newly passed Vermont bill which provides 10 hours a week of preschool to every 3 and 4 year old.
The return on investment from the Perry Preschool research is based on an intervention that included both high quality preschool and family education in the form of a weekly home visit from the teacher. While we cannot differentiate what part of the return is based on the classroom versus the home intervention, it makes sense that including families in the process of child development improves outcomes. So, while early education supports optimal child development, we cannot separate the development of young children from the context of their families. Families have the most significant influence on how their child develops in these early years. Adults who understand how their child learns and grows, and what is important for them to be successful, will be able to provide the strong foundation from which children can thrive. In our work with families we sometimes find that stressors such as worrying about housing, having enough food, being able to pay for heat and electricity and other challenges in meeting basic needs seriously interfere with a parent’s ability to even consider nurturing their child’s development. In other families, mental health and substance abuse stressors may be present even if they are able to meet their basic needs.
An important concept to understand is that children are shaped by the environment in which they live, and the safety and stability of that environment is created by their families and other adult caregivers. An environment which nurtures a child’s development gives them the strong foundation necessary to succeed. The adults around them need the resources, knowledge and skills to create such an environment. When the world around them is unpredictable or stressful, which can happen for many reasons from not knowing when their next meal will be to witnessing domestic verbal or physical violence, children will not have what they need to develop as well as possible.
Early childhood systems that incorporate an understanding of supporting child development in the context of family development are an essential aspect of the continuum of services, if we are to ultimately make a difference for children in our communities.
Family development is not about "throwing services" at families in need. It is about helping families recognize what is important about the earliest years of their child’s life, and supporting their development as parents. This may mean working on everything from supporting stable housing to accessing health care, as well as providing resources and information about their children’s developmental needs. This does not mean it is the job of the pediatrician to help families find housing, or the early education teacher to provide food. Rather, everyone who works with young children and their families must have a holistic understanding of how family situations impact child development and that they can participate in a team approach to best support that child and family’s growth. While some families may need intensive support through case management, others may simply need a list of resources. Regardless of where they fall on that spectrum, we need to partner with families and support their development, in order to support optimal child development.
Unfortunately, there is no single entity that can ensure children and families get what they need to survive and thrive. Collaborative work across sectors is necessary. For example, Children’s Integrated Services combines the expertise of multiple service providers. Or, the Building Bright Futures Council provides a forum for a diversity of sectors from health care providers to business leaders to work together on issues of mutual interest. Utilizing the Governor’s Early Childhood Action Plan and the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant, we have a golden opportunity in Vermont to fully develop a more comprehensive and coordinated system of care for our youngest citizens and their families.
Chloe Learey is the executive director of the Winston Prouty Center for Child Development in Brattleboro.
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