What, more than anything, will predict a young child’s future developmental success?
The answer, said Dr. Dana Winters, is having “one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver or other adult.”
Winters, a research associate at the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College, Latrobe, shared her insights as the keynote speaker Tuesday evening at the Early Childhood Symposium held at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. The McKean County Collaborative Board was celebrating the strides in early childhood learning over the past five years.
On Sept. 12, 2012, a similar symposium was held for the development of plans to strengthen early childhood learning in the county.
“Parenting generally has become much more stressful and complex,” said Bob Esch, chair of the Collaborative Board, as well as vice president of external affairs at American Refining Group and member of the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission. He explained that adding problems like poverty, drug abuse and family violence into the mix make it more complex.
And those problems impact the brain development of young children. “The younger the child, the more vulnerable,” said Esch.
The focus of the symposium is on those very young children between birth and age 5 — and what can be done to intervene.
“Research tells us early intervention works,” said Esch. He indicated that the cost of early childhood intervention is actually an investment, as it can reduce the cost of educating children when they are older, reduce crime and produce better citizens who are better prepared for the workforce. “We must advocate for greater investments in the early years,” he said.
As Winters explained, it is the “stable and committed relationship” between a child and an adult that provides the key to successful development and learning.
“If you think about it, you could be that one person for a child,” she noted.
Winters gave an example of school crossing guards she was watching in Pittsburgh. The crossing guards would say hello to every student they saw every day, even to children who did not respond.
While a simple hello may seem like a small act, there’s a larger message in it, according to Winters. That greeting is “to show them there’s someone here who cares,” she said. It tells the children, “If you need me, I’m here for you.”
When it comes to interactions, Winters borrowed a quote from late children’s show host Fred Rogers: “Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.”
She described a recent project by education professionals who tried to find a way to measure and predict quality in learning in pre-K students. They looked at various details such as teacher credentials, class size and curriculum.
What did Winters say predicted developmental outcomes? She said there was only one factor that consistently came up: “That was the teacher and child interaction.”
Describing it more fully, she said it was “meaningful high quality interactions between an adult and a child.”
She talked further about what allows some children to develop resilience and break free from cycles of poverty.
Winters showed a clip of Rogers. “Above all it’s your being there that matters,” he told the adults watching. Another message of his was “Every one of us, young or old, longs to be cherished.”
After Winters’ talk, Esch pointed to the connection between her words on relationships and the McKean County Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program. In the program, an adult volunteer is appointed to advocate for neglected or abused children.
The crowd heard from several other representatives of organizations that advocated for early childhood learning programs.
Carey Harris, executive director of the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission, explained that, through her organization she “works with business leaders across Pennsylvania who are committed to investment in early learning.”
She talks to business leaders on the “great return on investment” early learning provides. “It builds a strong workforce for tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Steve Doster is state director for Mission: Readiness, as well as Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, among other organizations he works with. Mission: Readiness is an organization of retired generals and admirals who fight for childhood programs that will help them be prepared to serve the nation as an adult. Similarly, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is made up of law enforcement officials who fight for childhood programs with the goal of reducing crime.
Doster discussed the “very sobering statistics” surrounding the workforce readiness of young adults in Pennsylvania.
According to him, nearly three-quarters of 17- to 24-year-olds do not quality to serve in the military. The three biggest reasons are that they lack high school education or do not get a good entrance exam score, they have medical issues or are overweight or they have a criminal record.
“If you’re not eligible for the military, what else are you not eligible for?” Doster wondered.
For her part, Stephanie Mock talked about the Pennsylvania Association for Education of Young Children, where she is director of public policy and outreach. Among the organization’s goals is to advocate for funding; for instance, Mock mentioned recent meetings with staff from the offices of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., to talk about the importance of early childhood education funding.
Kevin Thomas, executive director for the Pennsylvania District of Kiwanis International, talked about the child and youth-focused organization.
In fact, Thomas noted that “one of the best Kiwanis Clubs is in Bradford.” He talked about local efforts to engage the community through Kiwanis-related clubs such as Key Club, Circle K, K Kids and the Aktion Club, as well as other community projects like making trauma dolls, giving smoke detectors to families with small children and participating in Kids Fest.
Thomas has also encouraged Kiwanis Clubs to write to legislators to advocate for early learning support.
Early childhood consultant Jodie Holmberg talked about what has changed over the past five years since the 2012 symposium.
To describe the passage of time — and importance of early learning — she referred not to her work as a consultant but rather to her vocation as a mother of four.
Holmberg describe where each of her children, ages 8 to 11, currently are developmentally, talking about their skills such as social skills, work ethic and responsibility, then referred back to life lessons they received as young children. She suggested a connection between their early lessons and their current skills — and wondered how children who miss those lessons learn to cope.
As far as changes in McKean County as a whole, Holmberg said the past five years has brought new facilities such as the Ashley Booth Griffin CARE for Children Center, child care at the Bradford Family YMCA and new early intervention classrooms. There are new efforts made at kindergarten registration to coordinate services. Also, the Kids Fest in Bradford has prompted Potter County to begin holding a similar event.
Also, Holmberg said the community is improving its family engagement programs. For instance, a Keystones to Opportunities grant in the Bradford Area School District supports family engagement nights. Also, more than 500 families in the county have benefitted from home visitation programs.
Offering closing remarks was Shane Oschman, vice president of Northwest Bank, a past president of the Kiwanis Club of Bradford and a member of the Bradford Area School Board.
Oschman used a Russian nesting doll as a metaphor for the importance of early childhood learning.
The outside layer is usually an adult woman. He demonstrated with a real nesting doll, opening each up to reveal the next doll underneath. The larger dolls reflect the smaller dolls underneath. At the core is “one solid piece of wood made up of a small baby.”
It’s from this baby — one’s roots — that the outer layers are shaped.
A small child dealing with some type of adversity will be impacted by that experience. Without intervention, “What would those other layers look like?” he wondered.