Investing in the First Three Years of Life Can Greatly Impact School Success

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Research has proven that high-quality early childhood programs – particularly those targeted to children at risk for poor outcomes – can provide a considerable return on investment in terms of economic gains and educational outcomes.

Neural connections formed during a child’s first three years of life are vital for healthy brain development and form the foundation for future learning. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Mayor Betsy Hodges. It is the second post in a series about the Mayors’ Education Task Force.

It is incumbent upon us as city leaders to create cities that are focused on the future, not just the present. All cities will face similar challenges down the road, from workforce shortages to racial achievement gaps; we must be willing to address those challenges today by forming the next generation of citizens. That means reaching children as early as possible.

In the city of Minneapolis, I have formed the Cradle to K Cabinet to develop and implement a plan of action that makes very young children and their families a priority. Here’s why: research consistently demonstrates that the first three years of life are critical to children’s healthy growth and development. In every second of those first three years, more than 700 new neural connections are formed. These connections are vital for healthy brain development and form the foundation for future learning.

Infant brains are wired to absorb their environment, and positive early experiences in safe, supportive, nurturing environments facilitate healthy development. During this period of early growth and development it is vital that infants and very young children receive positive stimulation from a caring parent or adult that will allow them to grow and thrive.

Unfortunately, not all children receive such positive stimulation; far too many are exposed to toxic and stressful environments that impede their development. As a result, disparities and inequities occur early, and gaps in learning and development widen over time.

Mayor Hodges’ Cradle to K Cabinet consists of multi-sector experts, leaders, and parents working to prevent disparities by aligning policies, closing gaps, and increasing resources where needed to ensure that all Minneapolis children have a healthy start, are stably housed, and have continuous access to high-quality, child-development-centered child care and early education. (City of Minneapolis)

In 2013, Stanford University researcher Anne Fernald found that, by the time a child is two years old, there is already a six-month gap in language comprehension. This means that too many children are already behind by the time they enter school. Such an early learning gap is the strongest predictor of the persistent achievement gap in educational attainment.

Quality early education programs can mitigate these risks. Investments during formative years will ensure that all children get the best possible start to early learning and future school success.

Minnesota economist Art Rolnick’ s substantive research on, and advocacy for, investments in high-quality early childhood programs – particularly those targeted to children at risk for poor outcomes – has proven that they can provide a considerable societal return on investment in terms of economic gains and educational outcomes. For every dollar invested in high-quality early care and education programs, up to $13.00 in future costs are returned. Access to quality early care and education programs helps parents fulfill their parental responsibilities and allows them to go to work and provide for their children. Children that graduate from these programs have yielded benefits in academic achievement, behavior, educational progression and attainment.

I continue to advocate for the necessary federal and state resources that support the healthy development of young children. Federal programs and initiatives like the Child Care and Development Block Grant, Head Start/Early Head Start, Community (or Federally Qualified) Health Centers, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and Community Development Block Grants are just a few of the federal investments that support this critical need. The loss or significant reduction of these programs would impact the success of our future generations.

City leaders like ourselves must foster early learning and allow children and families to have access to high-quality, accessible early education programs and learning environments that are responsive to the needs of families and ensure that children are on a path to early learning and lifelong success.

For specific information on how you can invest in early childhood education, read NLC’s Early Childhood Learning: Building Blocks for Success and Educational Alignment Framework for Young Children.

About the author: Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges took office in 2014 after spending eight years on the Minneapolis City Council.