Child Watch® Column: "Leaving the Littlest Ones Behind"

Release Date: February 12, 2010

Marian Wright Edelman

When people talk about the "achievement gap" at-risk children face, they often think of it in terms that apply to school-age children—but that gap can start much earlier than most people might guess. A recent report by the nonprofit, nonpartisan research group Child Trends showed that disparities actually begin appearing before children's first birthdays. The report, "Disparities in Early Learning and Development: Lessons from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Birth Cohort," was funded by the Council of Chief State School Officers. It found that gaps in children's development are already apparent when babies are just nine months old, and grow even larger by 24 months. These disparities in infants' and toddlers' development can be measured across cognitive, social, behavioral, and health outcomes.

For example, when they looked at disparities by family income, they found infants and toddlers from low-income families scored lower on a cognitive assessment than infants and toddlers from higher-income families, were less likely to be in excellent or very good health, and were less likely to receive positive behavior ratings. When they looked at disparities by race/ethnicity, home language, and maternal education, they found that in general infants and toddlers from more at-risk backgrounds (defined as the children from racial/ethnic minority groups, whose home language was not English, and/or who had mothers with low maternal education) also scored lower on cognitive and positive behavior ratings and were less likely to be in excellent or very good health than children from more advantaged backgrounds.

Child Trends notes these findings have the potential to have widespread implications. Poverty was the most prevalent risk factor in the study, and they point out that nearly half of all American infants and toddlers—approximately 1.5 million children—live in families with incomes below 200% of poverty at nine and 24 months of age. Of these children, they note 89 percent of infants and 88 percent of toddlers have other risk factors in addition to being poor—and the more risk factors a child has, the wider the disparities across outcomes. So what can we do? Child Trends highlights four key implications of their study.

The first is that we should acknowledge that if differences in development can already be detected as early as nine and 24 months, interventions also need to start as early as infancy. They note research suggests that in addition to children ages three to five, children ages zero to three also need high-quality, comprehensive, and continuous interventions. Second, because income was the most prevalent risk factor, we should address poverty's threat head-on and make children in low-income households the main targets of early interventions designed to improve children's health and well-being.

The threats that pile on to poverty remain another danger. Since low maternal education is another key risk factor, a third implication is that we should engage and support parents of at-risk infants and toddlers through parental education. Child Trends notes that educating parents about early childhood development and supporting parents in their own educational attainment and/or income self-sufficiency are both useful for improving children's outcomes. The final implication in their report is that we should improve the quality of early care settings. They point out that research shows high-quality early care and education can help balance out the effects of demographic risk factors for young children. It also shows most infants and toddlers, especially those from low-income households, are cared for in home-based settings—so focusing on curriculum development and professional development in both home-based and center-based settings could help ensure infants and toddlers receive a safe, supportive, stimulating environment.

This important study underscores a key truth: if a price tag could be put on future workforce productivity in our country, the growing number of children in poverty is very expensive. Very soon, the line of credit we have been using by not investing wisely in children from an early age is going to bankrupt us.  Studies show the multiple benefits of quality early childhood programs extend beyond success in school far into adulthood. Cost-benefit analyses also show the positive outcomes of these investments in early education produce a rate of return to society of about 16 percent each year—higher than returns of most stock market investments or traditional economic development projects such as sports stadiums and tax incentives for businesses. Our nation simply can't afford not to significantly increase investments in early childhood development and care, or to keep leaving so many poor babies and toddlers behind. Ending child poverty is not only a moral imperative, it is an economic imperative.

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