It’s the Early Years That Really Matter

p>April 10 – 16 is recognized as the Week of the Young Child in the territory and throughout the nation. It’s a time to focus on the importance of early care and development and to ensure that we, as a community, are providing the tools that all children need to achieve success in school and in their future. Scientific and educational research tells us that the foundation for success in life begins during pregnancy and is built through age five. Children’s learning begins long before they enter kindergarten. A baby is born with about 100 billion brain cells, but there are few circuits and connections among these cells at birth. By the time a child is 3 years old, hundreds of trillions of connections among the cells have multiplied, influencing every area of development. Environment, experiences, and relationships (particularly with their families) influence the rate of growth and number of these connections that provide the foundation for language, reasoning, problem solving, social skills, behavior, and emotional health. A 2009 study on disparities in early learning and development indicates that as early as kindergarten a significant achievement gap is evident between low-income children and their more affluent peers. Children from low-income families are more likely to start school with limited language skills, health problems, and social and emotional problems that interfere with learning. In one well-known study, children from high-income families were found to be exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare during the first 3 years of life. Additionally, low-income children are more likely to go on to attend lower-quality schools, often widening the achievement gap rather than closing it. Here in the Territory, the VI Department of Education uses the Learning Accomplishment Profile, 3rd Edition (LAP-3) to assess the "readiness" of children entering public school kindergarten. LAP-3 measures a hierarchy of developmental skills necessary for learning in a sequence of seven domains: Gross motor, Fine Motor, Pre-writing, Cognitive, Language, Self-help, and Personal/Social. According to the data reviewed for a 4-year period (SY 2009-2010 through 2012-2013), roughly 1/4 or more of our public school kindergarteners tested below age-level expectations in 4 of the 7 domains. On average, our children did very well in the areas of Gross Motor, with 86% meeting expectations, and Personal-Social, with 83% meeting expectations. However, the Cognitive and Language domains were more concerning, with scores of 35% below proficiency and 50% below proficiency, respectively. These high averages of “below proficient” performance in the areas of cognitive development and language development are of particular importance with respect to later development. Cognitive development is central to preparation for school, and is strongly associated with later academic performance. Language is an important aspect of cognitive development and school readiness, with preschool language found to predict later literacy. So what can we do? In addressing issues of school readiness and later success families and communities are paramount. Parents and other caregivers can foster school readiness by surrounding infants and young children with love and support and facilitating opportunities to learn and explore their world. Communities can foster school readiness by providing social support for parents, learning opportunities for children, and services for families in need. Schools can foster readiness by maintaining connections with local child care providers and pre schools, enacting policies that ensure smooth transitions to kindergarten, and being prepared to address the diverse needs of children and their families. For more detailed information on this subject, CFVI has published the first in a series of policy briefs that will focus on the challenges facing young VI children and their families. Particular emphasis will be placed on highlighting best practices in the various domains of school readiness and providing recommendations for stakeholder action. Copies of the policy brief are available at the CFVI office or on-line at www.cfvi.net. Additional data on this subject (and others) can be found on the KIDS COUNT Data Center: http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data#VI. Editor’s note: Judith Richardson is the co-director of USVI KIDS COUNT.

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