Georgia Advocates Highlight Importance of Early Education on Youth Development

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Pre K“Children haven’t changed; but childhood has,” Bobby Cagle, commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) said Friday at an event held at the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.

Alongside Stephanie Blank, founding chair of the governing board of Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS), Cagle was presenting at an event titled “Young Brains and Education: What is the Return on Investment for High Quality Child Care?

“The state of early child care and education in the state of Georgia is concerning,” Cagle stated, citing findings from an independent, out-of-state study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina. “Three-quarters of our family day-care homes were found as low-quality [and] one third of our pre-school classrooms were also low-quality.”

Cagle’s remarks are a sharp contrast to the praise heaped upon the state’s Pre-K program by President Barack Obama during a visit to Decatur, Ga. a week before the Emory University event.

Cagle admitted the state’s enforcement of regulations pertaining to day care centers was frequently inadequate, going so far as to say that the state routinely lets operations stay in business that probably should not. But in the last two years, she added, the state has taken a very strict stance and is “beginning to see major improvements based just on what we’re doing in regard to enforcing regulations.”

A former Child Protective Services worker and probation officer, Cagle said he has experienced firsthand the consequences of insufficient early childhood education.

“If you give the right kind of early education, you can remediate toxic stress,” he said.

Blank described “toxic stress” as a physical -- not just psychological -- state in which “prolonged adversity” causes long-term physiological and developmental difficulties for young people. “It not only impairs brain function, but imprints itself chemically in the body,” she said. She cites emerging research that might indicate cardiovascular issues, cancer and even obesity, may be triggered by prolonged stress experienced by individuals from birth to 5 years of age.

“Those factors can still show up, 30, 40 and 50 years later,” she said.

Both Cagle and Blank agreed pre-kindergarten education is vital for bolstering the social skills and executive functions of children 5 and younger. Many times, Cagle said the cognitive development of children was “far behind, before even entering kindergarten.”

“Poverty is at the heart of much of this,” he said. About 70 percent of Georgian third-graders cannot read at grade-level; a statistic that jumps to 82 percent among the state’s impoverished young people.

He estimates that, “just by necessity of parents working,” nearly a half million children in Georgia require access to early education services. He additionally projects around 188,000 working mothers in the state have children under the age of 6.

The long-term effects of lackluster early education, he said, was evident. About 67 percent of 4th graders in Georgia cannot read at grade-level; for the state’s 8th graders the numbers increase to 72 percent. He believes at least 20,000 young people in the state are at risk for abuse and neglect, although he believes as many as three times that population are victims of unreported abuse.

Blank, herself a mother of three, compared the child rearing process to the process of nurturing a house plant. “The very same analogy can be made for our children,” she said. “But we all know that it takes much more intentionality than that.”

She mentioned a “30-million-word gap” between children growing up in high-income households and lower-income families. Generally, children in families with higher income were exposed to language that is “richer and more exploratory,” while children in lower-class homes are exposed to more “negative-based” vocabularies that tend to “shut off” a child’s exploration of his or her environment.

“We start to see the gaps as early as 18 months of age,” she said. Despite the far-reaching implications of early education, especially regarding cognitive skills and social-emotional learning (SEL) abilities, she said only 4 percent of “primary investments” in education are placed in pre-kindergarten programs. Regarding educational funding, “we obviously have a mismatch,” she stated.

Quality early learning environments, she said, are extremely important in a child’s cognitive development. “They are truly a product of the environment they have lived in,” Blank said. Without environmental stressors, like malnutrition or maternal depression, she believes that many children could have averted developmental delays altogether.

Through “serve and volley” interaction, she said young children develop neural connections. However, a lack of these interactions can have drastic consequences on the neurological development of children. “The brain is smart enough,” she said, “to prune away what it thinks it doesn’t need.”

She showed a photograph of a “normal” 3-year-old brain compared to the brain of a 3-year-old who had experienced extreme neglect. Atrophy in the neglected child’s brain had already set in, she said, and there were large portions of the brain that had not even developed yet. “But we can’t see that from the external,” she noted.

The human brain is most malleable and receptive during the formative years from birth to 5 years, she said. The plasticity is so great, she stated, even young children who experience major brain injuries are sometimes able to “re-route” neurological connections that would prove irreparable for older individuals.

With an estimated 60 percent of the state’s youth in early education or other forms of non-parental care an average of six hours per day, Cagle and Blank believe stability and quality in pre-K environments are extremely important in nurturing Georgia’s children.

“They need stable and responsive relationships,” Cagle remarked. “We’ve known that in the context of the family for many years, but this also extends to the caregivers outside the homes.”