Research continues to corroborate quality early learning as imperative for healthy childhood development. However, NH ranks as one of the most expensive states in the country for childcare which is often where children are exposed to early learning opportunities. Due to the high cost, socioeconomics are limiting the health, mental health and success of NH’s children. September 13, a forum featuring film and discussion held at the Rindge Meeting House, was facilitated by SAU 47 Superintendent, Reuben Duncan. The focused discussion dealt with the challenges of accessing quality early learning programs faced by families with children ages zero to four. The forum, one of a series, was sponsored through partnership with IMPACT Monadnock, Monadnock United Way and the Endowment for Health.

Children’s Ability to Learn Begins Forming Before Birth

Children’s Ability to Learn Begins Forming Before Birth

The film, Raising NH The Early Years, outlines specific challenges NH families face in accessing quality early learning programs. According to the US Census Bureau, the average cost of childcare is $11,800 per year which is a cost that even middle income families struggle to afford. Other challenges include a condition known as toxic stress. Toxic stress can potentially derail healthy childhood development. The film describes it as unrelieved activation of the stress response system in the absence of any support system. Toxic stress changes brain architecture in children. When fear and anger are the most common emotions that a child experiences, those are the pathways that are strengthened in the brain. These strengthened pathways result in a child’s inability to control impulses and reason. When children have access to quality early learning programs, supports can be provided to reverse chronic stress and direct them toward a positive life path. “If we get it right our children will flourish and our state will flourish,” states Patricia Tilley of DHHS Maternal & Child Health.

Additional challenges include NH’s lack of funding for preschool and non-compulsory kindergarten and lack of availability in quality early learning facilities (particularly infant care). With burgeoning waitlists for quality programs, parents are often forced to choose programs with poorly trained staff and ill-equipped facilities. The film poignantly summarizes the issue that children will suffer if they are in a poor quality early learning program in the same way that they will suffer if they are neglected at home. Teacher retention is also cited as an issue. Early learning teachers earn on average between $24,000-$26,000 per year. An early education worker in the film cites a phrase commonly used in the field to explain the struggle, “Parents can’t afford to pay; teachers can’t afford to stay; there has to be a better way.”

The evening and film highlighted the myriad of benefits to children, families and society, when we invest in quality early learning. When we think of investing we typically think of things such as stock market, real estate, schools and churches. Typically we do not think of investing in the developing brains of newborn babies or the low cost children’s books that could set them up for a successful future.

[…] investing in early childhood achieves the best ROI [return on investment] for our country. Currently more than 90 percent of our education dollars are spent after age five, yet 85 percent of a child’s core brain structure is developed before age five (Kristof & WuDunn 82-3).

Students exposed to positive quality early learning tend to do better in reading, math and problem solving. They are more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to become involved with the criminal justice system. Business owners are beginning to view early childhood investment as a workforce development. Tom Raffio, President of the NH Coalition for Business and Education states, “If you are concerned about the economy, invest in zero to four. If you are concerned about the crime rate, invest in zero to four. If you are concerned about the high-school dropout rate, invest in zero to four. Everything prescinds from the investment in the early years.”

While there are many challenges facing NH families in accessing quality early learning, there are several communities that have found solutions through powerful partnerships. Organizations such as the Seacoast Early learning Alliance (SELA) have pooled share facility management companies and web platforms to save money. They also share expertise, advice and educational materials. SELA estimates that they are saving early learning facilities between $10,000-40,000 annually.

Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health Project or project (LAUNCH) is based in Manchester where 1 in 4 children live in poverty. This program focuses on reducing the impacts of chronic stress through childhood screening and home visits. LAUNCH helps families to support their child’s learning and development. They also provide behavioral coaching to address any challenging behaviors they may impact their ability to learn in the classroom. These are vital programs because most children who enter public school socially and academically behind their peers will remain so.

Following the film, members of the community opened a dialogue. It was discussed that many people are not aware of the importance of childhood development or the enriching experiences preschool provides to young children. Assistant Superintendent, David Beauchamp stated, “nothing is more critical than for schools to get this kind of funding” (referring to early learning programs). A former head start teacher discussed the importance of early learning programs in the early identification and diagnosis of issues in children. Beauchamp responded to this comment stating “Public schools are really good at picking up the things that society needs help with.” The group discussed the importance of reaching struggling families in the community. In her comments, Principal, Susan Shaw-Sarles, touched upon the importance of providing support for parents so that stressors do not overwhelm their ability to parent. Behavioral Specialist, Kimberly Cloutier, described her wish for the community to see the beautiful and transformative experiences provided by the district’s preschool program. As conversation transitioned into points of action, Superintendent Duncan recapped effective strategies communities can implement to improve early learning programs: home visits, quality preschool, early learning from 7am – 5pm and community partnerships. Duncan closed the evening stating, “We at a local and state level can improve support for schools.[…] The most powerful politics are local politics,[…]We need partnerships that integrate non-profits, local business and members of the community.”

Reflection

Reverend, David L. Jadlocki Reflects on Raising New Hampshire

I am grateful to Impact Monadnock and SAU 47 for bringing this vitally important conversation to our community. It is amazing to imagine the transformative impact we can have on thousands of lives by simply implementing collaborative and engaging services for young children and their families. I sincerely believe that the ability to shape a community of hope and care is entirely within our reach, and it will come into being through creative and engaging partnerships between educators, health professionals, citizens, and local organizations. The future of our community is at stake, and with a little hard work, a dose of innovation, and an abundance of community collaboration, it will be a future to behold!
The discussion continues! Join members of the community at one of the upcoming forums

Sources:

Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn. A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Raising New Hampshire | The Early Years (Full Program) | NHPTV Video.” PBS Video. N.p., 15 Nov. 2015. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.

The discussion continues! Join members of the community at one of the upcoming forums!FullSizeRender (4)