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It's vital to give kids an early start

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

— Frederick Douglass

If we want children to grow up to be responsible, employable and successful adults we have to start at the beginning.

As a child, Chad Andersen lived with his mother — who was on welfare — in a small, ramshackle house on the outskirts of North Plains. He was skinny and terribly shy when he walked into the North Plains Head Start program 23 years ago at the age of two and a half. Then, as now, Head Start promotes the school readiness of children under the age of 5 from low-income families.

Despite a tough start, Chad went on to graduate from Southern Oregon University in Ashland, the first in his family to attend college. He stayed in Ashland to earn a masters in business administration in 2014. He was then hired to be an auditor with Crowe Horwath LLP, a respected public accounting and consulting firm in San Francisco.HOGUE

“Without the Head Start program, I would likely not be where I am today,” said Chad, who is one of millions of low-income American children who have benefited from quality early childhood education.

Community Action will be highlighting how early childhood education can help young people find a path out of poverty at an Oct. 13 Empowerment Summit in Hillsboro.

The summit discussion will start with what we know — that all infants have a natural curiosity. They are “wired to learn,” with “an intrinsic drive to master the environment,” according to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.

While parents are the primary educators and nurturers of their children, children also learn from interactions with others in their life. Many children are involved in formal early childhood education programs prior to attending kindergarten. If they are lucky, they experience a high quality program that supports the development of the whole child, including their social, emotional, cognitive and physical development.

If we focus only on cognitive development (“academics”) in early childhood and ignore the other domains we can do children a great disservice.

Exhaustive research shows that children who are socially and emotionally competent are better off all around. They are better able to manage their emotions and behavior, cooperate with others and form positive relationships. They are also better at making responsible decisions and handling challenging situations constructively. Young people who learn social-emotional skills early in life are also more self-confident, trusting, empathetic and intellectually inquisitive.

When young children are placed in an early learning environment that is rich in language, they begin to acquire the essential building blocks for learning how to read, another important cognitive skill. Children who enter school without these skills risk starting and staying behind.

Social-emotional skills support cognitive development by building skills that are essential to being able to learn. Head Start increases a child’s social competence by promoting development in all domains. Studies show high quality early childhood education translates into less need for special education, a reduction in children repeating grades, improved health for adults, improved educational achievement and wages and even decreased incarceration rates. That’s good for the children, and for society at large.

Children in poverty often lack access to high quality early childhood programs. If we want to break the cycle of poverty, early childhood education needs to be a key part of the effort.

Jane Hogue is director of Head Start at Community Action.

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