11/25/13 — Expert: Early education critical for future success

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Expert: Early education critical for future success

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 25, 2013 1:46 PM

The most critical time for a child to learn is from birth until he or she is 5 years old, experts say. And how much and how well a child learns during that crucial period goes a long way toward determining how well he or she will do in school, said the guest speaker at the annual meeting of the Partnership for Children of Wayne County last week.

"The whole first five years are preparation for that child to be able to learn," said Dr. Thomas Irons, associate vice president for regional health services with the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University. "In fact, study after study demonstrates that children raised in a loving environment perform better on every measure when they get to school.

"If a child has been subjected to repeated stress, if a child has been subjected to hunger, if a child has to move a great deal, if a child lives in a home that has a leaky roof that the landlord will not fix, if the landlord will not deal with the cockroach problem, every one of those is linked with problems with a child gets to school," Irons said.

Put another way, Irons said, by the time a child is 5 years old, he or she is hard-wired to behave in a certain way.

"It will take passionate, committed adults and a lot of time to help that child become rewired," he said.

For children lacking the opportunity to attend preschool or programs like More at Four, they are even more likely to fall behind, he said.

Matt Gross, policy analyst with North Carolina Partnership for Children, also spoke at the meeting. He drew an even finer point on the issue, saying there is a "word gap" between children born into poor circumstances and those who are not. The latter hear an estimated 3 million more words by the time they get to school than a child living in poverty.

"You can't make up 3 million words," Gross said.

But funding, literacy programs and an emphasis on family engagement are just a few areas that can help reduce that gap, Gross noted.

He said that since the economic downturn of 2008, cuts in funding have created problems in the state child care system. In general, he said, the child care system is operating with $25 million less now than it did in 2000.

"Since 2000 there's an extra 100,000 children under 5," Gross said. "The percentage in poverty has increased from 19 to 30 percent."

Gross, who works directly with 77 partnership organizations around the state, also suggested the need for legislators to be more involved in the focus on ensuring that students can read proficiently by the end of the third grade.

"You have to learn to read so you can read to learn," he said. "There's a lot of options to help the legislators help the third-grade reading scores be where they need to be."

The bottom line is that early intervention works, Gross emphasized, again noting how critical a child's first few years are.

The Partnership's executive director, Charles Ivey, delivered a summary of the agency's accomplishments over the past year.

Ivey said the child care subsidy this past year provided for 183 children, and there is still a waiting list, while 713 children were served in high-quality classrooms during the year.

More than 325 parents participated in prenatal education classes and nearly 40 parents sought help in how to deal with disruptive behaviors from their child, with 95 percent of them completing parenting sessions.

One of the agency's biggest successes, Ivey added, was the annual Born Learning Festival, which was held in June at Herman Park. It drew nearly 1,800 people to the educational opportunity, family activity day.