Early Learning

BTWIC Conversations on Early Learning

MA Leaders Rally for Early Education and Care

Today’s article from the Boston Globe seems to hiMA_kidst the right note: “legislators and corporate leaders are working together to increase quality of and access to early education and care”. BTWIC thanks House Speaker Robert DeLeo for being a true champion, harnessing the power of Boston’s strong business sector on behalf of young children across the Commonwealth. We have long held that early education and care is a community issue, one that affects all tiers of the economy, and it is heartening to see this work being done.

The attached graphic, and much of the article itself, focuses on children ages 3 to 5 – “Pre-K”, as it is formally known. Even the annual cost of a private-pay program (quoted as $12,800), is Child Care Aware‘s average figure for four-year-olds. An infant in care runs a family just over $17,000/year, for comparison.

Indeed, brain science has shown that rapid development occurs in the first months and years after birth, up to 700 new neural connections each second, largely through a “serve and return” process of interaction with a primary caregiver. This interaction is so important that, by 24 months old, disparities in vocabulary can become apparent among children from families of varying income.

Speaker DeLeo has heard this message, and understands the need for a quality workforce to support the healthy growth and development of young children of all ages, from all backgrounds. We are fortunate that the field has such a strong leader in the Massachusetts legislature.

Early Education on Boston’s North Shore

56bbc3a2f1598.imageAs of December 2015, according to an article by Carl Gustin and Tom Zarrella’s op-ed in the Salem News, “Just 38 percent of 3 year olds and 66 percent of 4 year olds in the United States are in some kind of preschool, which ranks the United States only 32nd out of 39 countries in the Organization for Economic Development.” This low rate of enrollment is especially disconcerting given that “The most comprehensive study of preschool effectiveness, judged over 40 years, demonstrated that children who attend preschool were more likely to graduate from high school, get better paying jobs, and be less likely to get in trouble with the law.” Additionally, “The study found that a $15,000 investment in a preschool student produced savings of $220,000 in avoided welfare and other social spending.”

Gustin again came to our attention last week, having penned a keen op-ed for the Gloucester Times. We took to Twitter:

The quotes were so universal – we hear the same stories here in Boston and across the state:

And the reason for these early education teacher vacancies seems to always be the same:

Unfortunately for everyone,

We were pleased, most of all, to see that our convesation drew the attention of others:

Let’s keep the conversation going – online and in-person – early education and care is too important to leave behind.

Carl Gustin and Tom Zarella are on the Board of Directors of Pathways for Children.

URGENT: Action Needed for Early Education and Care in MA!

action-alert-imageEarlier today, House Labor & Workforce Chairman John Scibak issued an Early Education Priority letter to House Members urging them to sign onto the below-copied letter. Please reach out to your Massachusetts State Representative(s) today and ask them to make the Early Education Workforce a priority by signing on! Interested House members may contact Joe Beebe in Chairman Scibak’s office at (617) 722-2030.

For a list of MA State Legislators, their districts, and their contact information, visit, or click the button to the left.
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Great work by PMKF – much more to be done!

We are excited that our Put MA Kids First coalition is gaining so much momentum – this recent blog entry on the intersection of educational achievement and income inequity (the much-publicized “advantage gap”) is one prime example. While reading, we were reminded us of this article on the Huffington Post, written last April. It covers a remarkable study which demonstrated physical differences between the brains of children from high- and low-income families, with disparity most evident at the lower end of the curve. One big takeaway:

“If we could somehow enrich the environments of particularly the poorer children, we might be able to change that trajectory to equalize it, to some extent.”
– Dr. Elizabeth Sowell, Director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles

For our original blog post on the subject, click here.

“Fade Out”: What is the real truth?

in October, Vanderbilt University released a study on outcomes from Tennessee’s voluntary Pre-K program, which serves mainly at-risk children from low-income households. The results caused quite a stir, as they seemed to suggest that gains made in Pre-K “fade out” by the end of 1st grade.Dan Walters’ article in the Sacramento Bee offered this interpretation:

“…the efforts devoted to raising the academic achievement of low-income children went for naught. Other factors, such as poverty and familial and peer influences, prevailed.”

But is that the real truth? There is a vast evidence base which suggests otherwise – that QUALITY early education, done right, can have a transformative effect on young learners, particularly those from non-English-speaking or low-income households. But what is “quality”? How is it measured? And how does it fit into the larger education pipeline?

Serve-ReturnSome researchers divide quality of an early education program into two segments: process quality (children’s immediate experiences) and structural quality (environmental factors, like teacher : student ratios). Both aspects speak to a warm, safe environment where “serve and return” features are evident. “Serve and return” is the back-and-forth conversational exchange of sounds, words, or ideas between a young child and a caregiver. These interactions are crucial to building brain circuitry from birth forward.

Central to these aspects of quality is a large factor to be considered – the preparedness of the educator. Studies show that educators perform better when they are 1) equitably paid and 2) given opportunities for professional development – not so different than any other industry. With in-classroom support, both teacher and student will thrive.

In a recent New York Times article, the Vanderbilt study’s co-author said:

“Tennessee doesn’t have a coherent vision. Left to their own devices, each teacher is inventing pre-K on her own.”

The article goes on to cite positive student-level outcomes from Boston and New Jersey’s public preschool classrooms, where experiential learning is emphasized and early educators receive mentoring and coaching. Results from Tennessee point less to the question of whether pre-k is beneficial for young children and more to the question of how to ensure quality education throughout the educational continuum so that benefits can be sustained.

The High Cost of Early Education for Caregivers

Child Care Aware recently released a fact sheet that compares key metrics on early education and care in the state of Massachusetts as related to numbers for the nation as a whole. Some indicators seem positive. WAPO_State_Rental_CostFor example, the average yearly wage for an early educator in Massachusetts is approximately $25,890, several thousand dollars greater than the national average. However, as the Washington Post recently reported, a worker would need to earn more than twice that amount simply to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Massachusetts, as the cost of living is among the highest in the nation.

The majority of the early education and care workforce is comprised of women, a little more than a quarter of whom are unmarried with children of their own. For this demographic – single mothers – income spent on child care is an unfathomable 63%. Married couples pay about 15% of their income. In fact, you could buy a new car with what you pay for one year of full-time care for an infant, or, as the fact sheet indicates, pay for 1.7 years of college.

Indeed, the picture for early education and care in Massachusetts is not rosy. We must expand not only access to child care, but also quality and affordability – both for the workers and the children. Studies demonstrate that children benefit from having a consistent caregiver. If compensation remains so low, and child care so unaffordable, it will continue to become untenable for skilled workers to remain in the field. We heard one such story on Early Education and Care Day at the State House, back in April, when Kiara Barros shared her story with more than 500 supporters. How many more stories like hers are out there?

Free Opportunity for Early Educators in FFN Settings

1506_Forum_v7_English150At BTWIC, we have spent the past year hosting small forums across the state, to convene “Family, Friend, and Neighbor” (FFN) providers and learn more about their needs and support requirements. To further disseminate and integrate this information, we are holding a free conference at the UMass Boston Campus Center on June 6, 2015.

The average cost to put an infant in formal care in Massachusetts is roughly $16,500 (Washington Post), and a 2015 report entitled “Status of Women in the States” found that the median salary of a woman working full-time in Massachusetts is $48,500. This means that the average working mom in Massachusetts spends nearly 1/3 of her paycheck on child care. Again, using the data in “Status of Women in the States”, we can see that, nationwide, women are nearly twice as likely to work part-time as men, and 93.9% of women surveyed cited “Child Care Problems” as a main reason for their work status.

1506_Forum_v7_Spanish150For many households, center- or family-based early education programs are only part of the solution. Indeed, only 25% of the children under 4 in Massachusetts are enrolled in a public early education program. Although the state provides approximately 55,000 vouchers for eligible children, many families from a variety of income brackets turn to relatives and friends to help ease the burden of child care. These individuals are considered as “Informal Care” providers, or “Family, Friend, and Neighbor” (FFN) providers, and they play an important part in the early education system.

Child Care Aware’s 2014 report “Parents and the High Cost of Child Care” notes that, nationwide, 52% of children spend some amount of time in an informal care setting. With the recent push to ensure that children enter kindergarten “ready to learn”, it becomes even more vital to ensure that these providers are able to access available tools that give the children in their care developmentally appropriate play activities to boost literacy and numeracy at a young age. This is why we hope to reach a good group of informal caregivers with this effort. If you’d like to help, please download the embedded flyers and share them with your network! If you would like to register, please visit We look forward to seeing you on June 6!

Serve and Return: Early Childhood Education and the Developing Brain

We were not entirely surprised by the results of a recent study on income inequality and brain function, but the message is startling.

Harvard Center on the Developing Child tells us that in the first years of life, 700 neural connections are formed every second. Those connections work to make up who we are and how we interact with the world. The brain’s capacity for change slows as we age – this is why grown adults have to work harder to learn a new language – but during the early years, a “serve and return” model governs this rapid growth. Children require interaction with attentive caregivers, and seek it out through their actions (babbling, facial expressions, etc). If a caregiver responds appropriately, a positive connection is formed. If the child is reacted to in a negative way, or simply ignored, the connection is disrupted.

In families experiencing daily stress, such as stress related to living in poverty, children are at risk for developmental delays—delays that can manifest as early as 9 months of age and can impact academic achievement and behavior through adulthood. Since most of the human brain is formed during the first three years of life, high-quality care is a “must” from the very beginning of life, and we must do better to deliver it.


Is Early Childhood Education a Public Health Issue?

The Ounce Start Early report

There are four criteria to determine if a health problem or condition is a public health issue, according to the 2006 research article, Chronic Kidney Disease: A Public Health Problem That Needs a Public Health Action Plan. Those criteria include: the health condition must place a large burden on society, the burden is distributed unfairly, future preventive strategies could reduce the burden, and current preventive strategies are not currently in place.  According to these criteria, it can be argued that early childhood education is a public health issue. This is an issue that is distributed unfairly, future preventive strategies can reduce the burden, without investing in early childhood education the health of the general population worsens-making it a burden on society, and although there are some preventive strategies, more need to be implemented.

In a recent report by Brooke Fisher, Ann Hanson, and Tony Raden, Start Early to Build a Healthy Future: The research linking early learning and health,  they provide an overview of research that addresses what it takes for a child to have a healthy start in life. Their research supports the idea that investing in high-quality early childhood education does benefit one’s health. A summary of the findings from research linking comprehensive, high-quality early education to health is found below:

Child Health Outcomes
  • Improved physical health: lower rates of injury, lower rates of overweight/obesity and lower body mass index (BMI), increased access to age-appropriate immunizations
  • Improved oral health: increased access to oral health screenings and increased access to dental care
  • Improved social-emotional, mental and behavioral health: lower rates of delinquency, fewer behavior problems, better classroom and interpersonal conduct
  • Increase engagement in health-promoting behaviors: more likely to be physically active, more likely to consume nutritious meals, and lower rates of cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use at age 12
Long-Term Health Outcomes In Adulthood
  • Improved physical health: reduced risk of coronary heart disease, lower rates of hypertension, lower rates of abdominal obesity (among female participants)
  • Improved mental health: fewer depressive symptoms
  • Increased engagement in health-promoting behaviors: lower rates and delayed onset of marijuana use, lower rates of drug or alcohol treatment, more likely to eat nutritious food (among female participants)

These findings suggest that “high-quality early education programs have repeatedly proven to be sound investments with lasting health benefits” however “too few low-income children have access”. Therefore, without investing in this issue and making access equal for all, we are only increasing the burden of this issue on millions of Americans.

In order to address this public health issue, strategies should be implemented. This report lists recommendations that should be made to address this issue, which include:

  • Direct health resources to the youngest and most vulnerable children from the prenatal period to age five
  • Implement effective evidenced-based practices that meet young children’s comprehensive needs in both early education and health care settings
  • Invest in systems that support high-quality and effective services in early childhood and health care settings
  • Build cross-sector collaboration to support young children in achieving good health, broadly defined to include children’s interrelated health and developmental needs
  • Embark on research and evaluation that explore the link between early learning and health

Overall, this report has shown that investing in high-quality childhood education has positive benefits on one’s health, not only as a child, but as an adult. However, they suggest that it is also important to support a child holistically. This would advocate for future preventive strategies that do not just invest in early childhood programs, but also in family engagement and care provided by pediatrician offices. Additionally, it supports the idea that continuing not to invest in this issue will continue to be a burden on the public’s health.

This is a comprehensive study that provides an overview of research that supports the notion that early childhood education is a public health issue. This issue is a burden on society, is distributed unfairly, can be reduced by preventive strategies, and has only a few preventive strategies.  Therefore, more research should be conducted on “the full spectrum of health outcomes associated with early education program[s]”, because it is an investment that benefits the public’s health, and will lead to more successful preventive strategies.

Are We Missing 50% of the Children?

young girl with spoonWe know that high quality child care is critical to starting children down a path toward achievement. Key academic, social and cognitive skills are formed during the early years– skills that are crucial to success in school and in life.

So we understandably focus a lot on the quality and strengths of staff members in programs such as Head Start and public and private child care and pre-K settings. But did you know that this focus misses about 50% of the children between birth and school age?

In actuality, at least half of all children under the age of six are not in licensed, formal environments. They are in Informal Care, or Family, Friend and Neighbor (FFN) Care arrangements.

What is Informal Care?

It is home-based, offered at either the caregiver’s or child’s home. It is provided by grandparents, other family members, friends or neighbors. It is the dominant form of child care among working families with young children. It is also true that low-income children and children of immigrants are more likely to use informal care arrangements than higher-income children or children of native born parents.

In their 2011 review, “Quality in Family, Friend and Neighbor Child Care Settings”, authors Amy Susman-Stillman and Patti Banghart report that one of the strengths of FFN care is that the adult/child ratios are often lower than those found in licensed, formal settings. They also state that there is generally a strong level of warmth and support for children, and that parents and providers experience positive relationships and communication. These elements contribute to the high level of satisfaction families report about these arrangements.

What characteristics are found among Informal Care providers? These individuals:

  • Are less likely to have a high school diploma than licensed providers
  • Typically have little training or education in early childhood development and education
  • Tend to have education levels similar to that of the parents served
  • Often are the same race/ethnicity and speak the same language as the parents
  • Are most often grandmothers.

Informal Care providers are typically more isolated and less connected to early childhood training and resources than those working in formal settings. Susman-Stillman and Benghart report that these individuals are very interested in being able to support children’s development. Others have noted, however, that they often face unique challenges to accessing technical and resource support.

Forty-six per cent of children from birth to three years of age are in FFN environments. The role that FFN caregivers play in supporting healthy development and school readiness, particularly among low-income children, is just as critical as the one played by providers in formal settings. Support to these individuals to improve the quality of their caregiving is vital to strengthening early education for children in low-income settings.


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