Most Utahns were brought up believing that ours is a land of equal opportunity, and that anyone willing to apply hard work and determination could become successful. But a look at the status of young children in Utah makes it clear that at least 20 percent of those who enter Utah kindergartens have far fewer opportunities to learn, develop and succeed than their more fortunate peers. These 5-year-olds, through no fault of their own, have already fallen victim to the damaging effects of toxic stress.
This corrosive stress is caused by multiple adverse events in children’s lives, including parental neglect, physical abuse, malnourishment, health problems, insecure housing, addicted parents and other stressors. Since the greatest amount of brain development takes place in the first three years of life, the effects of this stress are particularly severe for young children.
These children are more likely to enter school with diminished cognitive capacity, a penchant for impulsive behavior and an inability to concentrate. These handicaps make it difficult for them to gain the knowledge and emotional skills needed for success in school and beyond.
Children from families living in poverty (income of less than $25,000 for a family of four) are more likely to experience toxic stress. The deprivations experienced by their parents often affect their children. At least 39,000 Utah children live below the poverty line.
The good news is that excellent programs are currently available to shield children from toxic stress. The “Early Childhood Services Study” released at the end 2017 year by the Utah Education Policy Center and the Child Care Division of Workforce Services outlined successful programs in the areas of family support and safety; health and development; early learning; and economic stability. Such programs have the potential to eliminate many of the learning deficits experienced by many poor children.
The difficulty is that these proven programs serve only a small percentage of the children who need them. For example, massive data supports the value of home visiting programs for new moms to ensure young children’s healthy development and to teach parenting skills that give children proper enrichment and avoid toxic stress. But only about 5 percent of Utah children living below the poverty line receive these home services. Another example is the Early Head Start (for children under 3) program. The National Head Start Association estimates that only 9 percent of eligible children have access to this program.
The usual reason given for inadequately funding these preventive programs is that full implementation would be expensive, but that argument loses sight of the huge expenses we all incur when these programs are not in place. Without prevention, we must pay for expensive remedial education and anti-truancy programs, Juvenile and Adult Justice and Correctional systems and various welfare programs. A recent article from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child reported that, “Three of the most rigorous long-term studies found a range of returns between $4 and $9 for every dollar invested in early learning programs for low income children.” Two of these programs started in infancy, the other at age 3.Comment on this story
With a truly equal opportunity to succeed, poor children can grow up to contribute positively to our economy instead of being forced to draw on tax-supported aid programs. Our public resources will always be scarce; it makes sense to use them for early childhood preventive programs, where we will get “the most bang for the buck.” A first step would be the creation of a state-level early childhood task force to unite all the groups working on this problem.
Dr. Stewart Olsen is a retired psychologist. He worked in Salt Lake City and Utah for most of his professional life. Dr. Cheryll May is the retired head curator of the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, and taught political science classes at both the University of Utah and BYU.