5 Top Takeaways from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Webinar: Closing the Opportunity Gap for Young Children - Early Learning Nation

5 Top Takeaways from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Webinar: Closing the Opportunity Gap for Young Children

Because we’re still working remotely and not yet taking our Early Learning Nation Studio on the road during this time, stay tuned as ELN recaps Top Takeaways from important conversations, town halls, webinars and virtual events from the Early Learning field. And visit our Early Learning Nation channel on YouTube for interviews with leaders from education, child development, business, politics and more.

On May 16, the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine hosted a webinar to coincide with the publication of Closing the Opportunity Gap for Young Children, a consensus report that examines gaps that prevent children from having equitable access to resources and experiences. The authors make evidence-based recommendations for actions that can be taken by policymakers, practitioners, community organizations and philanthropic organizations, as well as other stakeholders.

Here are our top 5 takeaways from the presentation:

1. The many gaps are related and rooted in history. The “gap” usually refers to future academic performance. While education can determine future outcomes, it doesn’t capture the scope of the potential problems that children and families face.

“One of the greatest predictors of a child’s education outcomes is the education outcome of their mother,” explained Shantel Meek of Arizona State University’s Children’s Equity Project. “These pieces compound over time and become root causes and beget opportunity gaps in the future.”

“Many gaps in opportunity and outcome share the products of centuries of systemic racism across numerous domains of life, including finances, wealth, health and education,” explained Duke University’s Kenneth A. Dodge. The research suggests that exclusionary policies and practices, such as residential and school segregation, are some of the structural drivers of these gaps, since they dictate whether and how many resources are distributed to children, based on where they live and go to school. Additionally, macroeconomic and labor market trends affect parental earnings and job quality, influencing stress levels and health, and affecting children’s development.

2. Gaps impact birth and beyond. While most babies in the United States are born healthy, and on track for normal physical and cognitive development, those who are not may need substantial resources and care to survive infancy and meet the challenges beyond. Nearly 15% of women in the U.S. do not receive adequate prenatal care.

“Access to quality maternity care is critical to maternal health and positive birth outcomes, especially in light of the high mortality rates and severe maternal morbidity in the United States,” explained New York University’s LaRue Allen. “Failure to provide these opportunities early in life can lead to worse outcomes or exacerbate health issues that cause concern.”

3. Environment and income influence growth factors. Child well-being is affected by environmental factors like harmful pollutants and contaminants in the water and air. The prenatal and early childhood periods represent windows of increased susceptibility. Children of color and those of lower-income households are more likely to experience these opportunity gaps.

👉 Read more: Children’s Health and The Peril of Climate Change

“Parents’ jobs shape economic opportunities for children, particularly since wages are such a large source of family income,” explained Pamela K. Joshi of Brandeis University. “Access to paid leave improves parents’ health and young children’s health in infancy up to and through elementary school.” About a third of working families and most low-income families do not earn enough wages from their full-time employment to always cover necessities to raise children.

4. Access to universal care and culturally inclusive education is essential. Children are born learning, and neuroscience has long demonstrated that the early years are among the most sensitive periods for brain development. Child care and education rarely meet the needs of those most in need, and experiences differ when access is granted—for instance, dual language learners. “A lack of access to bilingual staff and teacher expectations, cultural inclusivity and effective engagement with families who speak a language other than English, all shape children’s experiences and disproportionately those of immigrant children, Latino and Asian American children,” explained Milagros Nores of Rutgers Univeristy.

5. Mental health must be a focus. The authors found that well-implemented, universal programs such as home visiting and social-emotional learning approaches in child care and preschool settings can improve outcomes. In addition, policies that support their parents’ mental health and well-being can improve outcomes for their children.

👉 Reduce Mothers’ Stress Now to Improve Mental Health for the Next Generation

“Access not only to mental health treatment but also to mental health promotion and prevention services and environments is crucial to parents, caregivers and children, Dodge said,

“However, a lack of culturally informed and linguistically matched care can exacerbate inequalities for marginalized groups.” Young children who experience compromised mental health are at increased risk for later challenges in their physical health, social relationships, psychological well-being and financial stability that last across the lifespan.

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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