By Mary Ellen Christy
Recently I was invited to preview a feature length documentary film entitled “No Small Matter”. This compelling film created by Siskel and Jacobs Productions (SJP) presents the best case for increased support and the need to focus attention and resources on early childhood. When it comes to both focus and funding, early childhood is the orphan child of education. Brain scanning technology has now validated what early childhood experts have always known, that the experiences a child has in the first few years of life are the strongest predictor of how the rest of their life will unfold, socially, academically and economically.
We now know that babies even as young as a few hours old are hardwired to learn. In one scene of this film, a pediatric neurologist is holding a baby close in front of him. They are face to face. As the doctor begins to rhythmically stick out and retract the tip of his tongue, the baby begins to imitate with his own tongue. Thus begins the initial stages of engagement, imitation, repetition and modeling of behavior which is representative of all early learning. This powerful film advocates strongly that the first five years of life are the most crucial ones in predicting the outcome of a child’s entire life. Some would narrow that time frame even more to the first 1000 days of a child’s life, spanning from the last trimester of a pregnancy through the first two years of life which is widely regarded as the period when the brain is at its maximum plasticity. One key difference between the first 1000 days and the first five years is that at about the age of two years most children move into an environment where they have an opportunity to socialize with other young children. Prior to that time, most infants are influenced by parents or care givers who provide a loving and stimulating environment which includes lots of eye contact and verbal interaction. We now know that the number of words a child hears before the age of three can vastly influence school readiness and academic performance for the rest of a child’s life. Neuro science has developed brain scans which can record with the use of scans, the almost “Big Bang like” activity in a baby’s brain, where 100 billion neurons are being connected by synapses at the rate of 700 per second. Conversely, when a child lacks a loving and responsive environment or even worse has “toxic” experiences, the brain can be rewired with consequences that will last a lifetime.
More than twenty years ago a study was conducted at Harvard University called the “Blank Mother Study” which exemplified a toxic experience. In this study, mothers were asked to turn away from their active and engaged children and to turn back and face the child with a completely blank stare. Each baby tried for a period to reengage the parent by making faces, gurgling noises or waving their arms. Most children persevered for a period and then finally stopped trying. That shutting down is emblematic of someone abandoning a task after a period because there just seems to be no sense of investment in the process on the part of the mother. Every parent is their child’s first teacher and therefore have tremendous influence over the progress of their child’s development. We live in a world of electronic devices and many are advertised as learning tools to enhance your child’s intelligence. The reverse experience would be a child who is placed in front of a device which purports to stimulate a child’s brain and enhance learning. The reverse is actually true; the one-way communication presented by these devices actually inhibits learning. It is the human voice, the animation of your face, the warmth in your voice and the tenderness of your touch that stimulates these synapses. What this means is that your child’s readiness for school is dependent upon interactions with those who provide the child’s care. The developmental differences by the age of three, between those who receive significant exposure to language stimulation and those who don’t is significant. It is not dependent upon family income, race, ethnicity, geography, or any other external factors that have long been listed as causative.
At the end of World War II, approximately 12% of mothers with children under the age of 6 worked outside the home. Today it is closer to 70%. Many parents are caught between a rock and a hard place when trying to provide the best care for their young children and being able to make ends meet. Young children are the one group, in a country which prides itself on being the land of opportunity, which has received very little attention or support at the national level.
Once a child enters an early childhood program it is essential that the program have highly trained and adequately compensated teachers. In this film, we learn that most professionals in early childhood education are so poorly compensated that they must hold down second jobs in order to make ends meet. This film spotlights one such young teacher who despite the fact that she is working two jobs just to provide for herself manages to create a wonderful learning environment for her class. Her training and her enthusiasm helps her craft a well thought out curriculum based more on learning than teaching, with plenty of opportunities for exploration of the natural world, plenty of interaction with peers through play, stories , music and movement and lots of exposure to the wonderful world of discovery learning .
One of the most surprising elements of this film was the testimonials given by retired very senior military officials who are very aware of the results of inattention to this problem. Shockingly, fully 50% of recruits who apply for military service are disqualified for physical or academic reasons. For them, and for all of us, this is a crisis and the military is paying attention to the families who are serving in the military by getting involved and advocating for expenditures in the area of early childhood programming.
The argument that the cost of this is prohibitive is no excuse for not doing the right thing. Truly this is no Small Matter. The U.S so often descried as the land of opportunity must address the inequities of educational opportunities offered to our youngest citizens, those from zero to five years of age. There is a growing consensus among developmental psychologists, neuroscientist, educators and parents that educational experiences in the early years will impact the ability to thrive in future creating a more healthy, responsible and educated population who can thrive for the rest of their lives. Experts calculate that the Returns on this Investment (ROI) will offer savings of between $4.00 and $15.00 in revenue for health care, prisons, special education and welfare per dollar invested in early childhood education. For all of us this is surely no small matter.