Critical Investments Should Target the First Eight Years of Life, Report Finds

Posted November 4, 2013, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s latest KIDS COUNT policy report, The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success, presents a strong case for investing in the early years of a child's life. Decades of brain and child development research show that kids who enter kindergarten with below-average language and cognitive skills can catch up — but only if they are physically healthy and have strong social and emotional skills.

“All children need nurturing and plentiful opportunities to develop during their crucial first eight years,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Foundation. “Today's complicated world can strain families' ability to ensure their children are receiving all the stimulation and care they need to develop to their full potential.”

The report details how a child’s early development across critical areas of well-being is essential to make the effective transition into elementary school and for long-term school success. According to a newly released analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal study that began to track 13,000 children who were in kindergarten in 1998-99, by third grade, only 36% of children were on track in cognitive knowledge and skills, 56% in their physical well-being, 70% in their social and emotional growth and 74% in their level of school engagement.

The analysis shows that just 19%of third-graders in families with income below 200% of the poverty level and 50% of those in families with incomes above that level had developed age-appropriate cognitive skills. This picture is particularly troubling for children of color, with 14% of black children and 19%of Hispanic children on track in cognitive development. Children who don’t meet these key developmental milestones often struggle to catch up in school and graduate on time and are less likely to achieve the kind of economic success and stability necessary to support a family themselves.

For children to succeed, classroom learning should be integrated with other aspects of child development, such as social, emotional and physical development, to create opportunities for children to develop the full array of competencies they will need in life. Many states and communities have already begun the work of bringing the programs and services for young children and families into a cohesive system. To prepare all of America’s children for success, the report sets forth three broad policy recommendations:

  • Support parents so they can effectively care and provide for their children. States and the federal government should make it easier for parents to navigate the array of programs that can help families by aligning and streamlining benefits packages. Children also benefit when their parents have opportunities to gain education and skills, and when their parents have well-paying, good jobs and the chance to build a career.
     
  • Increase access to high-quality birth-through-age-8 programs, beginning with investments that target low-income children. The report urges states to adopt Early Learning and Development Standards that set clear expectations for child development. Investing to ensure that all children reach important benchmarks, such as grade-level reading proficiency by third grade, will pay long term dividends. In addition to having high-quality care and education for all kids, states should ensure access to affordable and comprehensive health care with timely screenings that can catch disabilities or developmental delays in young children.
     
  • Develop comprehensive, integrated programs and data systems to address all aspects of children’s development and support their transition to elementary school and related programs for school-age children. States should use consistent measures of child development that provide broad assessments of well-being, including progress across key aspects of development. Coordinated educational efforts should use transition planning models that help children move successfully through the birth-through-8 system.

The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success includes data on early childhood development for every state, the District of Columbia and the nation. Additional information is available in the KIDS COUNT Data Center, which also contains the most recent national, state and local data on hundreds of indicators of child well-being. The Data Center allows users to create rankings, maps and graphs for use in publications and on websites and to view real-time information on mobile devices.