Katherine Akers' background is in neuroscience and psychology, but she didn't need her advanced degree to know the importance of early stimulation for her son's growing brain. She describes her son Neil as, "a little sponge, soaking things up."
After spending the first three months at home with Neil, Akers returned to work as a librarian at Wayne State University. She and husband Josh hired a provider to care for Neil in their Detroit Corktown home. At 13 months, Neil enrolled in the Early Childhood Education Center
at University of Michigan Dearborn, where Josh Akers teaches geography.
"We liked the Reggio Emilia play-based learning philosophy and the way they follow the child's interests," says Akers of the self-directed educational philosophy. "I do like how it's not just free play, but a very proactive approach to education."
Quality, nurturing early education allows Akers to enjoy parenting Neil, rather than worrying if her three year old is on track academically. "He's learning a lot from his school, and now home is more about living life. We go to the science center and to the playground."
Neil Akers, 3, draws at the UM Dearborn Early Childhood Education Center
Parents often wonder if their preschool-aged child is on target academically, but there are common misconceptions on what those benchmarks might be.
"We think they need to know their numbers and the alphabet, but these skills won't predict the child's experience," says Dr. Claire Vallotton, associate professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University. Instead, social emotional skills, ability to regulate behavior, and language proficiency determine a child's likelihood to succeed.
Some experts say this learning begins in utero, and certainly from the very first parent-child interactions after birth.
From the youngest age, "a child can never have too much interaction, never too much talking," says Dr. Helen Oliver-Brooks, early childhood consultant at Wayne RESA
. "This helps develop vocabulary, because they will repeat everything they hear. Pointing things out, helping to identify similarities, even matching shoes, this all builds the foundation, which starts at home."
Role of early learning
The most reliable way to increase the likelihood that a child's development is on track is through enrollment in an early learning program. Quality early childhood education can take many forms, but most formal curricula are designed for three- and four-year old students in preschool settings, where children can practice negotiating with peers.
But the birth to three window is equally as important, though not widely discussed. According to research co-authored by Vallotton
, children whose families receive government assistance and who face additional disadvantages, including lower levels of language stimulation at home, are at risk for decreased cognitive skills scores at ages one to three.
This period has long-distance effects. Quite alarmingly, one in six students who did not demonstrate third grade reading proficiency did not graduate from high school on time, according to a report by the Literacy Center of West Michigan
The authors conclude that these children should be supported by widely accessible parent programs expanded Head Start.
Children clean up a kitchen playset at the UM Dearborn Early Childhood Education
Children enrolled in Early Head Start, which supports child development efforts at home, had higher cognitive skills at age three than their non-enrolled peers. The research also cites a study that suggests higher cognitive scores at 54 months for children enrolled in childcare.
Michigan children are particularly at risk for delayed development—more than 22 percent of children live in poverty, 47 percent of African-American children, and 30 percent of Latino children. 54 percent of three- and four-year old Michigan children are not in preschool, and our state eligibility level for childcare assistance is near the bottom national list. The cost of childcare is more than 38 percent of minimum wage earnings, according to research by the Michigan League of Public Policy
"Childcare is an absolute necessity and a really important learning environment," says policy analyst Pat Sorenson with MLPP. "The Office of Great Start
and the Michigan Department of Education recognize childcare as an early learning opportunity and not just custodial care, so there are changing attitudes."
Low childcare eligibility rates adversely affect the industry overall. "Fewer and fewer families are eligible, so you are not creating an expanded market for quality care for children," Sorenson says.
For the 2018 state budget, Michigan House and Senate have agreed upon childcare expansion
to some degree, in the form of subsidy and eligibility increases. "The good news is they both have at least what the governor recommended in terms of an increase," Sorenson says. "Barring a deep renegotiation, there should be some increase in childcare."
Hallmarks of readiness
Major policy changes to prevent persistently lagging development have already been instituted. Beginning in 2019-20 school year, Michigan third graders
with reading proficiency a year or more behind grade level will not advance to the fourth grade.
In 2016, roughly half of third graders achieved the proficient or advanced level on the M-STEP, according to the Michigan Education Association
. But in Wayne County, 60 percent are not proficient, and in Detroit, 83 percent, according to Kathleen Alessandro, executive director of Everybody Ready. In Flint, that number is 83 percent, and in Kent County, 46.
"The benchmark is an important one, and it's a complex one," says Vallotton. "Third grade level is the switch from learning to read to reading to learn, and there is a snowball effect on preparedness for future learning. What happens at third grade is built on what has been happening since birth, the development of pre-literacy skills in infants and toddlers. All along, there are things we can do to build motor skills, social emotional, language, and cognitive—you have to have all these skills to get to the high level, sophisticated skill of reading and writing."
UM Dearborn Early Childhood Education Center teacher Charlene Hughes watches her students
Beginning in 2017-18, the law provides funding for literacy coach support to K-3 children with reading deficiencies.
To become kindergarten-ready, a child needs plenty of early language exposure, motor skills development, support for reading, and learning through play—abilities that are nurtured by early childhood education. The social-emotional component prepares children for "kindergarten and beyond," according to a brief shared by the First Five Years Fund
"With early social-emotional skills, it's not what we teach, but what we model," says Vallotton. "Respect and empathy. We label our own feelings and they learn to label feelings. They learn the language of their internal states through thoughts, feelings, and needs. Infusing interactions with that kind of talk is helpful."
Ideally, the entire community understands the important early learning that is taking place from birth.
"I work to educate everyone who comes in contact with children, especially administrators," says Oliver-Brooks. Bringing stakeholders into the classroom helps them own the educational experience, which leads to increased support.
Parents who hold on to the outdated notion of learning through repetition and worksheets especially benefit from advancing their understanding of the learning process.
"Children need hands-on experiences to learn," says Oliver-Brooks. "Instead of telling children apples are red, you bring in a variety of apples and talk about their various colors and attributes, and they learn to how to compare, make decisions, and judge.
"If we follow a conscious process and build on wherever the children are, we will grow more independent thinkers. Our children will excel because they want to learn, and not because we want them to."
This article is part the series "Early Education Matters" on the importance of facilities and programming in early childhood education. It is made possible with funding from IFF. Read more articles in the series here.
All photos by Sean Work.