Last updated: July 22. 2014 10:56AM - 165 Views
By Laura Eldridge Contributing Columnist

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An unfortunate reality of modern life is that too many families no longer have the luxury of having at least one parent staying at home to care for young children. Work (for those who have it or those trying to obtain it) is inescapable in a country where the cost of living woefully exceeds stagnant or even decreased earnings.

Families are often hit the hardest as they try to balance achieving some semblance of the American dream coupled with the job of raising and guiding their young children. Many have no choice but to entrust a sizable chunk of child rearing to early childhood educational professionals in order to financially survive. The fact is that parents are their children’s primary and most influential teachers.

While every parent wants the very best for their offspring, raising young children has incredible challenges and no single person or family has all of the resources, skills or answers to go it alone. Indeed, a sizable arsenal of resources, individuals and experiences help to shape and influence young minds — it really does “take a community” to get it right. However, the decision for parents to leave their son or daughter in the care of early childhood care staff can be guilt-ridden and gut-wrenching. But just how abysmal is this decision in the long run? Could it be possible that children may ultimately benefit from exposure to early child care and education? Or, could a child’s most vulnerable and critical early developmental years be irreparably hindered by this experience?

For thousands of working families, pre-school is a significant contributor to their child’s early educational experience. Early childhood encompasses the tender ages of birth to five; these years are the prime stages in the development of neurological maturation, physical growth, motor, perception, play, communication, autonomy and social skills, setting the foundation for a child’s future achievement in life.

Research indicates that the earlier in life children absorb positive and nurturing learning experiences the better their chances of becoming resilient and successful individuals down the road. In fact, a high quality pre-school or day care program may help to deliver such far reaching results as: increased high school graduation rates; lower incidence of teenage pregnancy; reduced criminal involvement, and higher earning potential.

Economically speaking, high quality early education harvests a minimum return of $8 for every $1 that is spent. This concept is supported in a longitudinal scientific study named the Perry Preschool Project, steered by James Heckman, an economist and Nobel Prize winner. Moreover, the University of Minnesota’s 25-year study (chronicled in the Journal of Science, 2011) showed that children who attended preschool were more likely to go to college, have prestigious careers, higher wages and socioeconomic status.

These studies, and many others, substantiate the power of early childhood education and its positive societal impact. On the contrary, there are studies that have not reached the same conclusions about the benefits of early childhood education and, in fact, believe that putting children in school all day at such a vulnerable age could be detrimental to a child’s development. A study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2003) revealed that some children attending school under the age of five tended to have more behavioral issues than children living at home. Still, other studies suggest that children are better off socially if cared for in the home.

Whatever side of the debate you are on, it is clear that although pre-schools are not a panacea for meeting every child’s needs, early childhood education does play a crucial role in closing the gap in educational proficiency. (This may hold especially true for families that have less financial, social or familial resources.)

Today, nearly one-half of children in the U.S. are attending a pre-kindergarten program such as: Head Start, public school pre-school, day care center or private, professional child care home. With the recent push by the Obama Administration to help fund pre-school for every child who wants or needs it, there is a concerted effort and incentive on the part of educators (and politicians) to examine what constitutes quality early child care and how it is prescribed. While the bar on staff education, training and service delivery expectations continue to advance, it remains imperative that parents investigate and learn about the pros and cons of a program before enrolling their child.

There is no one size that fits all. However, every young child whether being cared for at home or attending a pre-school program deserves exposure to as many growth opportunities as possible to ensure that she/he has a fighting chance at success. “Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.” – Maria Montessori

Laura Eldridge is with Action for Children, a source for early learning and child aare in Madison County. She can be reached at (740) 852-7983 or email leldridge@actionforchilren.org

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