BANK STREET COLLEGE OF EDUCATION
Children at Risk: Communities of Caring Help Get it Right from the Start
By Margot Hammond, Director, Bank Street Center For Early Childhood Professionals
Earlier this year I was facilitating a group on teaching writing in a high needs school in an urban district. During a review of student work, a kindergarten teacher shared a picture with a few words created by a five-year-old student. “I am sad,” the boy had written, “because my dad is dead.” The illustration depicted a child with big tears running down his cheeks standing over a body lying on the ground in a pool of red…red crayon used to draw blood. Violence is so common in this community that the boy’s teacher had not even been informed. This child and thousands like him need us to provide the support he requires for a better life, now, before it is too late.
Research on child development is quite clear about what a healthy start requires, the activities and routines that support growth, the kinds of relationships children need, and what happens in terms of brain development when a mother, grandfather, or caregiver plays peek-a boo with a baby, takes a toddler for a walk, or plays chase with a preschooler.
And research on helping underserved children tells us that that support must begin in the earliest of the early childhood years. Well-known studies, such as the Perry Preschool Project and Chicago Child-Parent Project, have shown that in school, and in life, children with high quality early education have higher rates of achievement and graduate high school more often and more quickly. As adults, they earn more and are more likely to own a home. The same studies demonstrate that quality helps to reduce grade retention, special education, teen pregnancy, and crime and incarceration. With an early positive start, children are much more likely to do well, emotionally, physically, and cognitively; without it, they are much more likely to experience difficulty as they grow and enter school.
I see the results of what happens when children receive the support they need and what happens when they don’t. Children who have gotten attention, children exposed to some of what the world has to offer, get along well. Children who have not (and in poor communities they are far too many) are in trouble from the very first day. They struggle to learn the basics, fail, and then drop out of school before they learn nearly enough to be successful in life. We must not continue to deprive a whole segment of our youngest citizens the foundation they need in order to succeed.
I know many of these children personally. They are intelligent, curious, active, and, given a better start, would definitely have greater success. Eager for learning, wanting to make friends, and curious about reading and writing, they are artists who spend hours drawing pictures of their families, singers with beautiful voices, and cub scouts proud to carry the flag during assemblies. If given what they need, these children have the potential to become scientists, mathematicians, poets, storytellers, athletes, and musicians. It is our responsibility to see that they do, to give them what they need.
Here is what works: Supporting the adults who support children. When we engage families and staff in family support, and enrichment and education activities, and provide opportunities for building community and learning and growing together, care and education for young children improves.
Creating a comprehensive quality system that is affordable and accessible to all.
We know how to create comprehensive services to meet both the educational and social service needs of children and their families, a system in which (1) families are well informed about care and education options, and provided with the services and support they need to raise healthy children; (2) teachers are prepared, certified, well compensated, with access to ongoing professional development opportunities; (3) classes have a low group size, high teacher to child ratios, and developmentally oriented activities and curricula are the norm; (4) wrap-around services include full day, year round childcare as well as education, enrichment, and family support, so families have the comfort of knowing their children are well cared for and educated.
But although we know what we have to do, and dedicated professionals work hard every day to make things better for children and families, somehow our society as a whole lacks the courage and will to face the political costs of making certain that all our children receive the quality care they need and have a right to expect. If we cannot summon the will and solve this problem once and for all, the fate of that sad little boy whose daddy was killed, and many of his playmates, is all too easy to predict.#