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.
It's important to help parents navigate benefit programs and give them opportunities to improve their skills and their ability to support their families, said the Casey Foundation. The group calls for better access to high-quality, integrated programs for children starting at birth and beginning with the low-income families. It also notes need for coordinated care for the children, from state agency partnerships to using early care providers as portals to needed services.
One of the challenges is the lack of a coherent national early childhood system, said Laura Speer, Casey's associate director for policy reform and advocacy. She described the implications for young families struggling day to day as "pretty major."
Relatively well-educated, adequately employed families who can take the time to seek out programs to help their children may feel challenged by the task. For a low-income parent who is a recent immigrant, for example, the lack of a coherent system has even greater impact, she noted.
Transitions — from toddler to preschool, from preschool to kindergarten — are important moments for children. "There's a lot we can do including technologically, like sharing information between those places, to smooth the transition," Speer said. That includes tracking improvements or lapses so a teacher knows what skills a child is missing.
Children in early childhood years use play to learn, said Speer. "Social and emotional development, learning to be in school and function in a group, to make friends and be engaged in learning, those are among the most important things children learn up until kindergarten," she said.
"Focus on the early years, the time when it's really the most cost effective to intervene," she said. "Intervention can be relatively small and have a huge impact over the long term."
Talk and read
Most research shows kids living in poverty have less access to opportunities than those in families with more financial resources, said Haven.
Parents with higher incomes "probably talk to their children more often and use a much wider range of vocabulary," said Vicki Mori, administrator at Guadalupe School. "We are always encouraging our family members to talk to their children. It doesn't matter what language. Talk, talk talk."
The same goes, she said, for reading. Sitting on a parent's lap and handling the book makes it familiar. Some of their students have not had that closeness to a book.
As in-home program coordinator at Guadalupe, Moira Rampton encounters families who are challenged to find enough time. "They have two or three jobs to make ends meet. So trying to get them to realize the importance of spending time with their children is really hard. We help them to realize that they are the child's first teacher and need to take advantage of the early years, which are the most important time in a child's life," she said.
Young parents may not even know how to play with their babies and talk to them, Haven said. "Parents spend two to three hours a day just diapering and feeding a baby. The kinds of conversations they have with these kids are really important, even before the baby can talk. 'Hey, we're going to put your shoes on your feet. These shoes are red.' It's one-on-one and back-and-forth and talking. It's the kind of thing home visitations can help young parents with."
Impact occurs in minutes and seconds, not just hours and years. "Just a few minutes with a child at a given time — a few minutes while you're driving, cooking, giving a baby a bath, changing a diaper. They are small times but very important," Rampton said.
Americans have made gains around access to early childhood programs and quality has improved, Speer said. Child care centers are held to higher standards than in the past. But there is great pressure on state budgets and it is often early childhood programs that lose funding, which means fewer kids can access them. Speer hopes that trend is changing.
She cites Oklahoma as a state that has made substantial gains in preschool. All 4-year-olds have access to quality preschool. They are also beefing up support systems for children who are even younger. New Jersey has, over the last decade, created more equality in terms of access to preschool. Research is beginning to point out the gains that have been created, she noted.
How states tackle the issues of helping families with early development varies. "No place has all the pieces of the puzzle figured out," said Speer, but quite a few places have implemented different parts."
The report is available at www.aecf.org.
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