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Strong lives begin with investment in early childhood development, report says

Published: Sunday, Nov. 3 2013 10:10 p.m. MST

Guadalupe School kindergarten student Ivan Ramos participates in class at in Salt Lake City Friday, Nov. 1, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The first-grader is trying to sound out tiny words like "in" and "the," but it's hard because she doesn't know all the letters. She's especially mixed up with capital I and T, her brow furrowed as she debates which one to guess. A volunteer tutor waits a few beats before telling her it's a T and helping her make the sound.

Few things are as important to a child's future as ability to read, according to a KIDS COUNT policy report released Monday by The Annie E. Casey Foundation. But even getting to that point is a process that involves lots of steps. "The First Eight Years" report highlights the need to invest in children from the beginning of their lives across diverse areas that include cognitive skills and social, emotional and physical development.

The report says years of research shows kids who enter kindergarten lagging in language and cognition have no hope of catching up unless they are healthy and have strong social and emotional skills. Tackling development before a child falls behind saves money and eliminates the need to play catch-up at all. So does helping mothers and fathers develop parenting skills and improve their opportunities to support their families adequately — financially and emotionally.

The report goes through third grade because is a milestone for children when it comes to reading. Up to that point, kids are learning to read. After it, they read to learn, said Voices for Utah Children Deputy Director Terry Haven. If they don't know how to read by age 8, they will have to work hard to make it up down the road or suffer disadvantages not just in the classroom, but in life.

By the numbers

The United States is home to 36.4 million children age 8 and under. Of those, 48 percent, or 17.2 million, live in low-income households. Low-income is defined as those with incomes of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which tracked 13,000 children in kindergarten in 1997-1998, KIDS COUNT found that 36 percent were where they should be in terms of cognitive knowledge and skills, 56 percent had adequate physical wellbeing, 70 percent were on track with social and emotional growth and 74 percent were doing fine in school engagement.

Half of third-graders in households that were not low-income had age-appropriate cognitive skills. That number fell to 19 percent among low-income children. For black children, it was 14 percent. For Hispanics, it was 19 percent.

Utah's youngest residents have some real challenges, according to the report. Some 45 percent of Utah's 466,660 children 8 and younger live in low-income households. The data show that 80,000 of those Utah children in poor homes live with parents who are employed. About 69 percent of low-income 3- and 4-year-olds are not enrolled in preschools, considered a powerful tool to build strong futures.

The state has a number of programs designed to help parents develop parenting skills. The Utah Department of Health has four home-visitation programs to get low-income children off to a good start, funded by the Affordable Care Act, for example. Voices for Utah Children notes that two of those programs involve "Parents as Teachers," an evidence based home-visitation system.

The group also points to Granite School District's social impact model that provides quality preschool to at-risk students. Many of the students who attended the program are now in fourth grade and test on grade level with or above their peers in math and reading.

Failure to catch up predicts a decreased likelihood that a child will complete high school on time or grow into an adult who achieves economic success and the stability needed to support a family, the report said.

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