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Start early

Lay foundation for kids’ success

Frederick Douglass once noted, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." We now know just how important the earliest years are in laying the foundation for success in school and beyond--starting in the womb.

Research on brain development shows that 85 percent of a child's core brain structure is formed before age 3. This rapid early brain growth is why it is much easier for a toddler to learn a new language than it is for an adult.

Infants and toddlers who have positive early learning experiences have better health, behavior, and economic outcomes over a lifetime. Investing in young children's development has been shown to reduce crime and children's placement in the juvenile justice system and improve the social skills needed to become productive citizens. It also makes a big difference in the workplace. A survey by ReadyNation found that 92 percent of business leaders agree that children's experiences in the first five years of life affect the development of social-emotional skills later in life.

Unfortunately, more than half of Arkansas children start kindergarten unprepared, lagging their peers in critical language, math, and social-emotional skills.

Parents and caregivers who regularly read to them, tell stories, sing songs, and engage in other literacy activities help prepare young children to become proficient readers and perform better in school. They are also more likely to read proficiently by the end of the third grade. Only 37 percent of third-graders in Arkansas currently meet this pivotal benchmark.

Having books in the home is also vital for developing young children's reading skills. Most children from lower-income families have no children's books in their homes, compared to an average of 13 books per child in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods. This literary disparity helps explain why the achievement gap begins so early and remains so persistent. Dolly Parton's Imagination Library and Reach Out and Read Arkansas are helping close this gap by providing free books to parents of young children. They could reach far more children with a modest investment of public dollars.

There are many other effective policies and programs that our state can implement to improve school readiness and other outcomes for all children. A new report from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading--"What Do Our Littlest Learners Need to Be School-Ready?"--encourages policymakers to ensure that all families and their children have access to health insurance and quality care, including prenatal care and developmental and mental health screenings for infants and toddlers. Expanding home-visiting programs is another cost-effective way to help new parents learn the skills they need to raise happy, healthy children.

Paid family leave also allows parents to create strong bonds with their children and return to work without creating financial hardship. No parent should have to make a choice between needing to work and wanting to take good care of his or her children.

In 2017, the Arkansas Legislature recognized this critical need by enacting a paid family leave program for state employees at a very low cost. The next step is to expand this program to include all Arkansas workers, especially during their children's formative years.

The state and the business community can support families by increasing access to high-quality early childhood education once working parents return to their jobs. Just 13 percent of low-income families have access to affordable early childhood education for their infants and toddlers through programs such as Early Head Start.

Arkansas should consider supplementing federal funding for quality programs to help close the gap.

Parents, policymakers, and our communities must work together to create a long-term plan to move Arkansas from adequacy to excellence, and poverty to prosperity. This will require us to do a better job of supporting new parents before their children are born and provide infants and toddlers a much stronger foundation for success.

Together we can help children develop a lifelong love of reading and learning from the beginning.

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Jerry Adams, president/CEO of the Arkansas Research Alliance, is committed to a 21st century competitive future for all Arkansans.

Editorial on 01/12/2018

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