28 May 2009

Increasing Our Holdings in the Baby Sector: Spending on Infants and Toddlers in the 2007 Federal Budget

The science of early brain development tells us that investing in high quality, best practice programs promotes early brain development and improves the life outcomes of children (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004). With that logic in mind, the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution jointly released a new report entitled, “Federal Expenditures on Infants and Toddlers in 2007,” which details both direct and indirect federal spending on the youngest children (between birth and age 2) across eight categories: Health, Nutrition, Housing, Income Security, Social Services, Education & Training, Tax Credits and Reductions in Taxes.

The report finds that in 2007 the federal government spent $57 billion on infants and toddlers (about 2% of the total budget):

  • The largest share of federal spending for infants and toddlers goes to Health care, at 24% of all spending on children;
  • The next largest share of spending (23%) came in the form of tax credits, including credits for child care and health insurance;
  • Only 7% of the budget for infants and toddlers goes into child care and education;

To what extent are infants and toddlers in Shelby County participating in federally-supported, best practice programs? Currently,
  • There are 95 infants and toddlers enrolled in Early Head Start through Porter Leath (Mike Warr, 2009);
  • There are 60 families enrolled in the Parents as Teachers program in Memphis City Schools; and
  • There are 255 children enrolled in Healthy Start through the Shelby County Health Department (Shelby County Health Department, 2009).

These programs are funded through a combination of federal, state and local funds and are all consistent with nationally proven best practice models. Still, there is a large unmet need for such programs in our community. Roughly half (7,500) of the children born in Shelby County every year live in poverty, and would both be eligible for – and would benefit from – participation if slots were available (TN Department of Health, 2008).

When investing in infants and toddlers returns anywhere from 6 to 17 dollars for each dollar invested, the smart money would increase our holdings in “the baby sector.”

Tennessee Department of Vital Statistics

Shelby County Health Department

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (Summer 2004).

Macomber, Jennifer, Julia Isaacs, Tracy Vericker, Adam Kent and Paul Johnson. (April 2009). Federal Expenditures on Infants and Toddlers in 2007. Washington D.C.: The Urban Institute and The Brookings Institution. Accessed May 25, 2009.

26 May 2009

Even Start: What Happens When A Promising Early Childhood Education Model Fails to Improve Early Childhood Educational Outcomes?

Advocates and scholars have long argued that children exposed to early pre-literacy activities – particularly low income and minority children – do better when they reach kindergarten (Brooks-Gunn and Markman, 2005; MacInnes, 2009). It makes sense to us that this would be the case: After all, 95% of a child’s brain development occurs before she ever enters kindergarten. Smart investments during the first years of life can help to build a strong foundation of early brain development that will put a child on a trajectory to success in school and life.

The Even Start Program, which was initiated in 1989, is designed to improve children’s school readiness and well-being by combining “early childhood education, basic adult education, and parenting skills education into a unified family literacy program” (McCallion, 2006). The logic behind the Even Start program is sound. Even Start is geared toward families headed by parents who lack high school diplomas and who live below the poverty line, where children are at-risk for school failure and drop-out. The objectives of the program align with recent scientific research, which shows that infants’ and toddlers’ brains develop through interaction with their caregivers and their daily experiences (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004). The research also demonstrates that the quality of a child’s linguistic development also reflects the amount and quality of language they hear at home (Brooks-Gunn and Markham, 2005 and Hart and Risley, 1995).

Why, then, did the Administration announce plans to eliminate funding for the program by 2010? According to the White House, evaluations of the program suggest that it has failed to live up to expectations. Families in the program, for example, fared no better than comparable families not in the program on 38 out of 41 key outcomes (White House Office of the Press Secretary, 2009).

Administration officials argue that even though they agree with the premise of Even Start, multiple federal evaluations of the program are persuasive in arguing that the program is not achieving its desired outcomes. Even a 2008 overhaul of the program, which implemented a new curriculum and increased the amount of time that parents spent on pre-literacy activities with their children, failed to translate into improved literacy skills for children as they entered kindergarten (Judkins et al. 2008).

While the Obama Administration is devoted to early childhood education, the proposed elimination of Even Start makes it clear that they are equally committed to investing where the data proves that programs work.


Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne and Lisa B. Markman. (2005). “The Contribution of Parenting to Ethnic and Racial Gaps in School Readiness,” Future of Children, 15.1: 139-168.

Hart, Betty and Todd Risley. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.

Judkins, David R., Robert G. St. Pierre, Babette Gutmann, Barbara D. Goodson, Adrienne Von Glatz, Jennifer Hamilton, Ann Webber, Patricia Troppe and Tracy Rimdzius. (September 2008). A Study of Classroom Literacy Interventions and Outcomes in Even Start. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

Klein, Alyson. (20th May 2009). “Advocates Fear for Imperiled Education Programs,” Education Week. Accessed May 21, 2009 <http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/05/20/33spending.h28.html?tkn=TNZFrNLngstcDLY0zQQ3tt2FLpgQXTxJD4Wc>

McCallion, Gail. (17th January 2006). Even Start: Funding Controversy. Congressional Research Service: Report for Congress. Accessed May 21, 2009. <>

MacInness, Gordon. (18th May 2009). “Preschool and Early Reading: How Obama Can Learn From New Jersey’s Expensive Effort to Narrow the Achievement Gap,” Education Week. Accessed May 21, 2009 <http://www.edweek.org/login.html?source=http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/05/20/32macinnes.h28.html&destination=http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/05/20/32macinnes.h28.html&levelId=2100>

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (Summer 2004). Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships. Working Paper #1, Author.

Office of the Press Secretary. (6 May 2009). Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials To Discuss Terminations, Reductions and Savings in the 2010 Budget. Accessed May 21, 2009 <>

18 May 2009

Don't Eat The Marshmallow!

In the late nineteen-sixties, the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel began a series of experiments with nursery school children. The experiment was simple: children were given the choice of either having one marshmallow right away or, if they could wait for a few minutes, they could have two marshmallows. Writing about this research in the May 18th New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer explains that the children then were left alone with the treats – creating a test of young children’s ability to delay gratification. As we might imagine, most of the kids polished off the marshmallows within a couple of minutes. Nearly a third of the children, however, successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later.

What makes this story even more interesting is what happened to these children later in life. By high school, the children who couldn’t wait (low delayers), were more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower SAT scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. Meanwhile, the children who were able to wait the full fifteen minutes at age four, had SAT scores two hundred and ten points higher than kids who could wait only thirty seconds. And by their late thirties, low-delaying adults had significantly higher body-mass indexes and were more likely to have had problems with drugs.

Why were some children able to delay gratification? Professor Mischel explains that children who were more successful in the experiment had developed better skills for the “strategic allocation of attention.” They covered their eyes, pretended to play hide and seek, or sang songs. These same skills remain critically important throughout life; coming into play, for example, as high schoolers choose between studying for the SAT or watching television.

The ability to delay gratification may have a class component as well. When Professor Mischel gave delay of gratification tasks to children from low-income families he noticed that their ability to delay was below average. “When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much, and if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies.”

But what if we could teach children simple mental tricks – such as pretending the marshmallows are only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame? Michel found that such tricks dramatically improved children’s self-control. Working with the KIPP academies and a number of other schools, the researchers are now looking at the degree to which self-control can be taught. In a series of studies with students between the ages of four and eight, this research uses peer modeling, such as showing kindergartners a video of a child successfully distracting herself during the marshmallow task.

The real challenge, though, is turning these tricks into habits. “This is where parents are important,” Michel says. Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile? … Even the most mundane routines of childhood – such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning – are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching our selves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires.”

Home and family: A child's first and most important school.

Between birth and three years of age, a child’s brain undergoes profound physical changes and grows dramatically in size, laying the foundation for that child’s later successes in school and life. Consistent with our mission to foster optimal brain development, we need to pay careful attention to the homes and neighborhoods in which our youngest children are growing up. To thrive, young children need a secure and inspiring home environment, where they are surrounded by opportunities for exploration that build on their natural curiosity, and that support the development of their imagination, ambition and problem-solving skills. Children living in over-crowded and unsafe housing — and where parents are struggling to get by and pay the rent, buy food and heat the home — too often lack these opportunities and start life at a disadvantage.

Fast Facts (Annie E. Casey Foundation):

- Almost one in five Memphis children live in crowded housing, which is defined as a housing unit in which there is more than one person per room. Young children who reside in crowded housing may have poorer cognitive and physical development and be more apprehensive, socially withdrawn, tense or aggressive (Evans, 2006).

- Almost 70% of Memphis children live in low-income households where housing costs exceed 30 percent of the household income. High housing costs relative to income can pressure parents to choose between eating and seeking medical care for their babies or toddlers. Children who live in areas with higher rates of unaffordable housing tend to have worse health, more behavioral issues and lower educational performance (Harkness & Newman, 2005).

Very young children spend over two-thirds of their time in the home environment and are particularly vulnerable to household hazards. Policies targeting affordable housing can improve the overall health and well-being of the children and families in our community and support maximum brain development in our youngest citizens.

Policy Strategies (Pollack et. al, 2008):

- Educate and accredit housing suppliers, owners and renters through social movements and programs of the hazards of dangerous and harmful housing and about their rights and obligations.

- Heighten resources and extend the role of public health departments in housing education, supervision and administration.

- Look into private enterprises- such as Habitat for Humanity- to create more affordable, healthy housing units.

For more information on the well-being of children in Memphis and Shelby County, please visit The Urban Child Institute and The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County: Data Book.


The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center, www.kidscount.org.

Evans GW. "Child Development and the Physical Environment." Annu Rev Psychol, 57: 423-51, 2006.

Harkness J and Newman S. "Housing Affordability and Children's Well-Being: Evidence from the National Survey of America's

Families." Housing Policy Debate, 16: 223-55, 2005.

Pollack, C., Egerter, S., Tabashir, S., Dekker, M., & Braveman, P. (2008). Where we live matters for our health: The links between housing and health. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

12 May 2009

Quality Father Involvement Enhances Mind Development In Our Youngest Children

While child care was traditionally seen as women's work, fathers play a vital role when it comes to effective early childhood development as well. This is all the more true as a growing share of America's families rely on mothers in the workforce. In Shelby County, for example, close to sixty percent of mothers of infants (babies under a year of age) are in the work force (American Community Survey, 2007).

There is no doubt that children can thrive in a wide variety of family types and situations. However, active involvement of a devoted father offers infants and toddlers an exceptional source of the caring interplay and stimulation that feeds the developing brain. In fact, careful scientific studies have found that high-quality, active fatherhood is good for young children - it can lead to improved child mental health, better coping skills and even higher academic achievement (Hoffman, 2008).

In our community, many children cannot count on regular access to their fathers, leaving these children without an important input to healthy early brain development.

Fast Facts (www.kidscount.org):

- From 2002 to 2006, the number of births to unmarried Shelby County women increased by thirteen percent.

- In the city of Memphis, 52% of children are being raised by single mothers. Only 36% of children reside in a married couple household (2007).

Policy Suggestions:

-Support and encourage the active and regular involvement of fathers in the lives of their children. (This is the goal of programs such as Parents' Fair Share and Father/Male Involvement Preschool Teacher Education Program). Both programs provide family support and parent education during early childhood.

For more information on the well-being of children in Memphis and Shelby County, please visit The Urban Child Institute and The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County: Data Book.


The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center, www.kidscount.org.

Hoffman, J. (2008). Daddy I need you: A father's guide to early brain development. Father Involvement Initiative- Ontario Network.

06 May 2009

Brain Development and Early Learning: Profound Societal Changes Should Inform Public Policy

Scientists have long been aware of the phenomenal growth of the human brain during the first years of life. Synaptic connections begin prior to birth and are created at an accelerated pace through age three. The condition of an infant's bond with his or her principal caregivers has a definite effect on the formation of the mind, impacting the nature and range of adult potentialities.

For our youngest children's minds to become highly developed and primed for learning throughout the lifetime, replicated experiences are vital. Whether at home or in an early education classroom, children do best if they are provided:

- Genuine, predictable and supportive interactions
- Established patterns and regularity
- Exposure to plentiful, interactive language
- Innovative ways to learn

What does this research on early brain development mean for public policy? To what scope should localities take public steps to advance early learning?

In our community, penetrating social and financial conditions are posing grim challenges to the efforts of families to ensure quality early childhood development.

These changing conditions include (www.kidscount.org):

- The substantial number of low-income working families with young children. From 2006 to 2007, the number of low-income working families with young children (< 6 years of age) residing in the City of Memphis increased by approximately twenty-four percent.

- The rise in unmarried families and in impoverished single-parent families. Almost 65% of children in our city live in single-parent families (Annie E. Casey, 2007). From 2006 to 2007, the number of impoverished single-parent families residing in the city increased by almost ten percent.

It appears that many of our parents are struggling in their attempts to guarantee that our youngest children are secure, flourishing and ready for the kindergarten classroom.

Investments that promote healthy brain development during early childhood provide dramatic economic and social returns. High quality early childhood initiatives can make a profound difference both for individuals and for society. Our job is to make sure that as many of our youngest children as possible have access to a strong start in life.

For more information on the well-being of young children in Memphis and Shelby County, please visit The Urban Child Institute and The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County Databook.


The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center, www.kidscount.org.

Edie, D. & Schmid, D. (2007, Winter). Brain development and early learning. Wisconsin Councial on Children and Families.