30 September 2009

How Much Better Prepared for Kindergarten Are Children Going through Head Start and State Pre-K?

Early Childhood: The Most Economically Efficient Time to Invest in a Child’s Development

Children undergo their most rapid brain development between conception and age 3. Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman has pointed out that the rapid and foundational nature of this period of early brain development means that it is an excellent time to invest in young children’s developing skills. His recent research has also demonstrated that investments in children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills after 5 can only achieve maximum effectiveness and return to society if they are built on a solid foundation of early skills development (Heckman, July 2008). Heckman reached these conclusions about early investment, in part, by studying the returns to society and the individual that were achieved by children who participated in high quality early interventions, such as the Perry Pre-school Program and the Abecedarian Program in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Measuring the Effectiveness of Current Investments in Early Brain Development

Spurred on by the hope of increasing children’s preparation for kindergarten, particularly their cognitive and social/emotional development, the federal and state government have been making investments in Head Start and more recently, state pre-kindergarten for the last several decades. However, questions still remain about how much more prepared children are for kindergarten after participating in Head Start and/or state pre-kindergarten. We also do not know a lot about whether children who participate in Head Start are better off, worse off or about the same as children who participate in state pre-kindergarten.

In order to address these questions, the researchers at Early Ed Watch have been writing an interesting series of articles comparing the salient features of Head Start and state pre-kindergarten programs around the country in order to determine whether children do better, worse or the same in each type of pre-school program. Their blog can be accessed here.

To complicate matters, programs in many communities, including Memphis are in the process of merging their state pre-kindergarten and Head Start programs so that funding can be leveraged to produce a higher quality program for more children.

Most of the national level research on Head Start comes from two studies, the Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) and the Impact Study. These studies have demonstrated that most children are better prepared for kindergarten, but their gains in kindergarten readiness are not comparable to the Perry or Abecedarian programs that helped spur public interest in funding these programs. However, in programs such as the Abbott Pre-School Program in New Jersey and the Tulsa Pre-K Program, children are seeing gains in pre-kindergarten readiness which are much more comparable to the results achieved by the Perry and Abecedarian programs.

Maximizing the Return on Our Current Investments

What are the salient features of the Abbott and Tulsa programs which helped improve student’s early learning outcomes so much? The primary factors involved appear to be higher teacher salaries and an equalization of quality standards including teacher education and ratios. Teacher salaries played a large role in increasing program quality because they attracted highly qualified individuals who are good at “engaging students in academic concepts and had a close relationship with them” (Guernsey, September 11, 2009). Giving children access to these high quality teaching experiences, in turn, significantly improved their preparation for school. For more information on this topic please see the Early Ed Watch Blog at http://www.newamerica.net/blog/early-ed-watch/2009/checking-assumptions-about-school-readiness-14507.

We are hopeful that the forthcoming collaboration of Shelby County Head Start and the Memphis City Schools pre-kindergarten teacher will allow the district to leverage funding and equalize quality standards between the two programs so that our investment in vulnerable Memphis children’s early development can be maximized.


Guernsey, Lisa. (September 11, 2009). Checking Assumptions about School Readiness. Early Ed Watch Blog. Washington D.C.: New America Foundation. Accessed September 23, 2009. <>

Heckman, James J. (July 2008). Schools, Skills and Synapses. Economic Inquiry 46, 3, 289-324.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships. (2004). Working Paper No. 1. Retrieved [August 21, 2009] from

29 September 2009

"Hang up the cellphone and talk to young children"

In today’s New York Times, Jane E. Brody has a column entitled “From Birth, Engage Your Child With Talk.” Brody reminds us that communication begins as soon as a child is born. She writes: The way you touch, hold, look at and talk to babies help them learn your language, and the different ways babies cry help you learn their language. According to the American Medical Association, parents should talk to their babies whenever they have the chance… “your calm, reassuring voice is what he needs to feel safe. Always respond to your newborn’s cries – he cannot be spoiled with too much attention.”

While we often stress the importance of language in the home for early child development, Brody points to the negative effect of electronic distractions on today’s parenting. She writes: “all too often, the mothers and nannies I see are tuned in to their cellphones, BlackBerrys and iPods, not their young children.”

What difference could this possibly make on child development?

According to Randi Jacoby, a speech and language specialist, “Parents have stopped having good communication with their young children, causing them to lose out on the eye contact, facial expression and overall feedback that is essential for early communication development. Young children require time and one-on-one feedback as they struggle to formulate utterances in order to build their language and cognitive skills. The basic skills are not being taught by example…”

Ms. Jacoby advises parents to: “Reward your little one’s communicative attempts with your heightened attention to his/her conversation. Be prepared to put down your cellphone and look them squarely in the eye as they share their thoughts with you.”

What would effective parent/child communication look like?

Jane Brody reviews several guidelines for parents:
• Avoid baby talk and baby words, which can confuse a child who is learning to talk. If your child uses a baby word, repeat it, but also use the correct one.
• Play word games like “This Little Piggy” or “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” and encourage your child to do the accompanying motions.
• Count the steps as you go up or down.
• Ask questions that require a choice, like “Do you want milk or juice?”
• Sing songs and recite nursery rhymes.
• Read together every day, and ask your child to name or describe the objects and characters in the story.
• Above all, when your children try to talk to you, give them your full attention whenever possible.

23 September 2009

Which Quality Factors Improve Children’s Cognitive Development Between Birth and 5?

Children undergo their most rapid brain development between conception and 36 months of age (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004). Children’s brains and minds develop in tandem; therefore, access to resources that promote optimal development is particularly important during a child’s earliest years. Early mind development is a compilation of the cognitive, social and emotional skills that human’s develop and build more complex skills upon as they age. In turn, early growth is an important predictor of later life outcomes. Early brain and mind development are both experience dependent (Thompson, 2001, Spring/Summer). Young children utilize the components of their early relationships and resources to support the physical development of their brains as well as the acquisition of their cognitive, social and emotional developmental skills.

Years of research has demonstrated that children who receive supportive, nurturing care in a rich language environment have better cognitive development by the time they enter kindergarten (Burchinal et al., 1996; Willms, 2002; Howes, 1997; National Institute for Early Education Research, 2003, December). In turn, increased kindergarten readiness has been linked to better performance in school and enhanced preparation for the workforce. There are many things that parents can do to support their children’s cognitive development including:

Speaking to infants and children often and trying to use at least 5 words per sentence;

Reading to their children daily from an early age;

Using the teachable moments of daily life to help children gain understanding of early math and science concepts, for instance cooking together can be an excellent opportunity to explore things like ratios and fractions and the differences between liquids, solids and gases (Zero to Three, n.d.).

Not surprisingly, the same characteristics that help improve cognitive development at home also apply to child care settings. Child care settings that have small caregiver to child ratios and well educated caregivers who receive ongoing training and support provide demonstrable increases in children’s language and cognitive development and also in their school readiness. Small caregiver to child ratios provide caregivers with the energy and time to respond more sensitively and thoroughly to children’s needs. Ongoing education and training arms providers with the information and skills they need to provide a rich language environment and utilize effective curriculums that improve children’s pre-literacy and pre-math skills (Burchinal et al., 1996; Willms, 2002; Howes, 1997; NIEER, 2003, December).


Burchinal, M.R., Roberts, J.E., Nabors, L.A. and Bryant D.M. (1996, April). Quality of Center Child Care and Infant Cognitive and Language Development. Child Development 67, 2, 606-20.

Howes, C. (1997). Children’s experiences in center-based child care as a function of teacher background and adult: child ratio. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 43, 404-425.

National Institute for Early Education Research. (2003, December). Can A College Degree Help Preschoolers Learn? Fast Facts: Issue No. 1. New Brunswick, N.J.: Author. <>

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships. (2004). Working Paper No. 1. Retrieved [August 21, 2009] from http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu

Thompson, R. A. (2001,
Spring/Summer). The Growth of the Brain. The Future of Children: Caring for Infants and Toddlers 11, 1. Accessed September 2009. < journalid="44&articleid=" sectionid="1212&submit">

Willms, J.D. (2002). Vulnerable children and youth. Education Canada 42, 3, 40-43.

Zero to Three. (n.d.). Everyday Ways to Support Your Baby or Toddlers Early Learning. Washington D.C.: Author. Accessed September 2009. < docid="3081&AddInterest=">

High-Quality Early Care Promotes Social, Emotional and Cognitive Development In At-Risk Young Children

Eighty percent of brain development occurs in the first three years of life, and early environments can encourage or impede effective cognitive growth. Science affirms that residing in poverty means more than economic hardship for infants and toddlers- young children raised in impoverished households lack access to crucial resources needed for optimal social, emotional and cognitive development. Unfortunately, child poverty is on the rise in Memphis- from 2003 to 2007, the percentage of children living in impoverished families rose from 35 to 42 percent (The Urban Child Institute [TUCI], 2009).

However, researchers may have found a potential equalizer: high-quality early care and education. For our youngest at-risk kids, attending an enriching early care program may be enough to negate the impact of vulnerable home environments and present them with the framework needed for academic success. According to Boston College professor Eric Dearing, whose team evaluated data of more than 1,300 children in 10 regions across the United States, “even minimal exposure to higher-quality child care at times was enough to offset the deprivation often encountered when growing up poor” (West, 2009, p. 1).

Dearing suggests that the advantages of high-quality early care were seen in most children, no matter their socioeconomic status; however, the observed impact became more significant as the family income levels dropped. The study results also suggest that the effect of high quality care increases with exposure—the more time spent in an educational setting, the better.

What is high-quality early care? The study team, which includes researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Samford University, defines “higher quality” day care as environments that provide better than typical personal care, cognitive engagement and emotional support to infants and toddlers. Effective early care, Dearing suggests, should not be mistaken for the exclusive programs usually located in wealthy neighborhoods. Instead, top-notch early care can be provided in a setting as familiar as a grandparent’s house or as standardized as a traditional community day care center.

Low-income families, just like wealthier families, need caring child care environments while parents are on the job or attending school; however, impoverished families are typically obliged to utilize inferior care because they have few options. Although the study did not make targeted suggestions on how to enhance early care in poor environments, the researchers implied the need to better inform families on how to access high-quality early care and dispense increased public funding of education initiatives for children less than five years of age. The findings from the assessment appear in the September/October issue of Child Development.

For more information of the well-being of children in Memphis and Shelby County, please visit The Urban Child Institute website at http://www.theurbanchildinstitute.org/Home.


The Urban Child Institute. (2009). The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County: DataBook. Memphis, TN: The Urban Child Institute.

West, P. (2009, September 16). Better day care, smarter kids? Yahoo News!: HealthDay Reporter.

17 September 2009

Tennessee Receives Incentive Funding From HHS To Improve Programs For Children In State Custody

This week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded $35 million in incentive awards to states that have increased the number of children adopted from foster care. Tennessee is one of 38 states receiving recognition and a financial award from HHS for improving policies and programs for maltreated children.

The Adoption Incentives plan was developed in conjunction with the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. The initial plan rewarded states for moving children from state custody to permanent adoptive homes. Under the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, incentives were increased for moving children from foster care into adoptive households. The Act also mandates the use of consistent and comparable data on foster care and adoption.

This is positive news for our community, where 925 children were in state care as of June 30, 2007. Approximately one in five of these kids were preschoolers - the time in which the most rapid cognitive, social and emotional growth takes place. It is imperative that these susceptible infants and toddlers have access to the resources that promote healthy development- including a loving, consistent and established family. We applaud Tennessee for earning these incentive funds and look forward to their continued success in achieving permanent placement for these children into attentive and caring homes.

According to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, “Adopting a child from foster care is a wonderful way to enrich any family’s life…We congratulate the states that performed so well this year and we thank the parents who are providing loving and permanent homes” (Reuters, 2009, p.1).

A complete listing of each state’s adoption incentive award amount can be found at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/news/press/2009/fy09_adoption_incentive_awards.htm.

Policy suggestions to support young children and their adoptive families (Zero To Three, 2009):

- Provide continual post-permanency supports for adoptive families after permanency has been established. Infants and toddlers who depart foster care for a permanent adoptive home may continue to have developmental and mental health needs. For these placements to be successful, enduring emotional, financial and logistical services should be readily available.

- Guarantee that court administrators are informed about child growth and development and utilize their education to ensure stability and security. In order to accomplish their leadership and governing roles in cases involving very young children, court authorities should be aware of current scientific advances and possess the ability to apply that comprehension in their legalistic decision-making.

For more information of the well-being of children in Memphis and Shelby County, please visit The Urban Child Institute website at http://www.theurbanchildinstitute.org/Home.


Cohen, J. (2009). Securing a bright future: Infants and toddlers in foster care. Washington, DC:
Zero To Three Policy Center.

HHS awards $35 million to states for increasing adoptions. (2009, September 14). Reuters:
Business Wire 2009. http://finance.yahoo.com/news/HHS-Awards-35-Million-to-bw-1239344910.html?x=0&.v=1

TN Department of Children’s Services. Annual Report FY 2009. Nashville, TN: Author.

15 September 2009

Providing Consistent and Nurturing Care for Infants in the First Year of Life

Children undergo a period of rapid brain development between conception and 36 months of age. Early brain development is experience dependent. This means that infants and toddlers need nurturing, consistent care from a regular caregiver in order to develop their foundational social, emotional and cognitive skills (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004).

- In Shelby County, 60% of mothers of infants were also in the labor force (American Factfinder, 2007).
- Similar percentages of single and married new mothers are working. Fifty-nine percent of married mothers of infants were employed, compared to 62% of single mothers of infants (American Factfinder, 2007).

Tennessee Maternity Leave Laws

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 stipulates that all employees in the United States are entitled to up to 12 weeks of uncompensated leave for any of the following reasons:

• for the birth and care of the newborn child of the employee;
• for placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care;
• to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
• to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition (U.S. Department of Labor, 2009).

The 1987 Tennessee Maternity Leave Act law only provided unpaid leave for female employees and did not require employers to grant unpaid leave to families who were new parents through adoption (Baker Donelson, 2005). Following a 2005 amendment, the Act now entitles both male and female employees up to 4 months of unpaid leave in relation to pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding or adoption. The period of leave for employees who are expecting a child can begin during or after the pregnancy at the employee’s discretion with 3 months prior notice to their employer. Leave for the adoption of a new baby begins when the adoption occurs (TN Code Annotated 4-21-208, 2005). Whether or not an employee is compensated during maternity leave is at the discretion of employers; however, some organizations allow new mothers to utilize unused, compensated sick and/or vacation time while they are on maternity leave (TN Dept of Human Resources, July 2009).

Finding Affordable, High Quality Infant Care

Who takes care of babies when mothers go back to work? In Tennessee, the two primary sources of publically funded care for infants (under 12 months of age) are Department of Human Services (DHS) child care (designed for low-income families receiving government assistance) and Early Head Start.

- In 2009, only 7% of DHS child care recipients were infants under one year of age (NACCRA, 2009). In Shelby County, this would mean that roughly 3,131 (~20% of those born every year) infants were receiving subsidized child care (TN CCR&R, October 2008).

- Currently, there are 95 Early Head Start slots in Shelby County and these are available for children between 6 weeks and 3 years of age (Warr, 2009).

As of December 2008, the average weekly cost of full time infant care in a 3 star or NAEYC accredited child care center in Shelby County was $140.00, or $7,280 annually and ranged from $110 a week to $191 a week (CUCP estimate, 2008).

If they had to pay the market rate, what percent of a family’s income would be devoted to child care? Median family income for married couples with children in Shelby County is $81,698 a year - this suggests that the average two-parent family in Shelby County would spend 8% of their income per year, per child for high quality infant care. By comparison, single mothers with children earn a median annual income of $22,007- These families would spend 33% of their annual income per child for high quality infant care.

Expanding Affordable Care: The Illinois Infant/Toddler Set Aside

Over the last few decades, our neighboring state of Illinois implemented a set of innovative child care programs that offer promising models for Tennessee. During the 1980’s, the Illinois legislature created three different programs to target services to children and their families who were between birth and age 5. In 1997, the legislature decided to combine the funding for all 3 programs into one block grant, which became the Illinois Early Childhood Education Block Grant (ECEBG). This grant money is used to fund early care and education, parent training programs and early intervention services. The legislature set aside 8% of the ECEBG to provide services directly to children from birth to age 3, and this is known as the Illinois Infant/Toddler Set Aside. The set aside became available to service providers around the state beginning in 1999. In 2004, they increased the amount of the set aside to 11% of the block grant funds and also began exclusively funding best practice proven programs (Ounce of Prevention Fund, 2007).

For the 2009/2010 fiscal year, the Infant/Toddler Set Aside will generate $37.6 million in funding for best practice programs for infants and toddlers in Illinois (CUCP Estimate, based on Bellinger, August 2009). While this does represent a 10% cut in funding from the 2008 levels, it still enables the Illinois Department of Education the leeway to create and fund high quality, affordable programs for infants and toddlers (Bellinger, August 2009). Tennessee does not have an Early Childhood Education Block Grant currently, but we do have many of the programs that were utilized to create the ECEBG in Illinois and it is not beyond our capacity to set aside a portion of those funds to create more affordable, high quality options for our youngest children.


American Factfinder. (2007). Table B13012. WOMEN 16 TO 50 YEARS WHO HAD A BIRTH IN THE PAST 12 MONTHS BY MARITAL STATUS AND LABOR FORCE STATUS. Washington D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau

Baker Donelson. (July 2005). “Amendment to Tennessee Maternity Leave Act Allows Leave for Adoptions and Male Employees,” Labor & Employment Alert. Memphis: Author. Accessed September 8, 2009.

Bellinger, Catharine. (August 2009). “Illinois Governor Protects Part of Early Childhood Budget, But Still, State Funding Drops,” Early Ed Watch Blog, Washington D.C.: New America Foundation. Accessed September 11, 2009 < http://www.newamerica.net/blog/early-ed-watch/2009/illinois-gov-protects-some-money-early-learning-all-early-childhood-programs-fac>

National Association of Child Care and Resource Referral Agencies. (March 2009).Average Monthly Number of Children Served by Age. Author. Accessed September 8, 2009.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships. (2004). Working Paper No. 1. Retrieved [August 21, 2009] from www.developingchild.net/pubs/wp/environment_of_relationships.pdf

Ounce of Prevention Fund. (2007). Illinois’ Infant Toddler Set Aside: What It Is and How It Works to Promote School Readiness. Chicago: Author. Accessed September 11, 2009. < http://www.ounceofprevention.org/includes/tiny_mce/plugins/filemanager/files/Infant%20Toddler%20set%20aside-pub%20rev%2007.pdf>

Tennessee Child Care Resource and Referral Agency. (October 2008). Personal communication with Katie Devlin.

Tennessee Code Annotated 4-21-408. (2005). Leave for adoption, pregnancy, child birth and nursing an infant. Accessed September 10, 2009. http://www.state.tn.us/labor-wfd/Title4-21-408.htm

Tennessee Department of Human Resources. (July 2009). “Maternity Leave,” State Employee Benefits. Nashville, TN: Author. Accessed July 8, 2009.
United States Department of Labor. (2009). Family and Medical Leave Act: Overview. Washington D.C.: Author. Accessed September 10, 2009.

Warr, Mike. (March 2009). Personal Communication with Katie Devlin.

10 September 2009

Understanding Why Poverty Harms Children and How to Fix It

In Shelby County roughly half of all children live in poverty during the critical years between birth and kindergarten entry. This start in life matters for the students and adults that these children will become. This is because children growing up in poverty lack access to the ingredients that make for positive early childhood development.

Resources and relationships are the primary ingredients that shape a child’s intellectual, emotional and relational skills. Further, the skills that infants and toddlers acquire in their first years of life are the building blocks that all of their later life learning and abilities will be built on (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007). Poverty is one of the strongest known correlates to negative developmental outcomes (Brooks Gunn et al., 1994; G. J. Duncan & J. Brooks-Gunn, 1997; Lee and Burkham, 2002; Hart & Risley, 1995). However, very few people who research child development attempt to discern why poverty so consistently harms children’s development. Said another way, what is it about the experience of growing up in poverty that is so bad for children?

An impoverished childhood is literally like limiting a cake baker to flour and water. Poverty is about more than just a lack of financial resources. Meeting children’s developmental needs requires relationships, interaction and active give and take and this is no less true for children in poverty than for middle-class kids.

Parents raising their children in poverty are not poor parents. Rather, they are parents who lack some or all of the resources their children need to thrive. Helping children and families escape poverty and its devastating effects requires the extension of resources and relationships to parents and their children. Lest we forget, we are all affected by the devastating consequences of poverty on children’s development when they enter school unable to participate, fall behind, fail out, become involved with crime and drugs and then continue the cycle by raising their children in poverty.

In 2001, a book entitled Bridges Out of Poverty explored what it means to live in poverty, how living in poverty shapes people’s thoughts, choices and actions and what it requires to help people move permanently from poverty into the middle class. The authors define poverty as “the extent to which an individual does without resources” (Payne et al., 2001). They argue that poverty may include the absence of the following resources:

- Financial – Having the money to purchase good and services;

- Emotional – Being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behavior. This is an internal resource and shows itself through stamina, perseverance and choices;

- Mental – Having the mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing) to deal with daily life;

- Spiritual – Believing in divine purpose and guidance;

- Physical – Having physical health and mobility;

- Support Systems – Having friends, family, and backup resources available to access in times of need. These are external resources;

- Relationships/Role Models - Having frequent access to adult(s) who are appropriate, who are nurturing to the child, and who do not engage in self-destructive behavior;

- Knowledge of Hidden Rules - Knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group; and

- Coping strategies – Being able to engage in procedural self-talk and the mindsets that allow issues to be moved from the concrete to the abstract. It is the ability to translate from the personal to the issue (Payne et al, 2001, pg. 11).


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

Lee, Valerie E. and David T. Burkham. (2002). Inequality at the Starting Gate: Social Background Differences in Achievement as Children Begin School. Washington D.C.: Economic Policy Institute.

Duncan, G.J., Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and P.K. Klebanov. (1994). Economic Deprivation and Early Childhood Development. Child Development. 65,296-318

Duncan, G. J. & J. Brooks-Gunn (Eds.), Consequences of growing up poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2007). The Timing and Quality of Early Experiences Combine to Shape Brain Architecture: Working Paper #5. http://www.developingchild.net

Payne, Ruby K., Phillip E. DeVol and Terie Dreussi Smith. (2001). Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities. Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc.