Until last week I thought I had a good handle on issues of early child development.

I am the father of two now-adult children; watching them grow at such an explosive pace from birth through the preschool years was nothing short of miraculous.

I’ve been in contact with untold numbers of educators over the years about the issue. I’ve read books such as David Brooks’ “The Social Animal,” which provide excellent primers on the development of the human brain from pre-birth through childhood.

Yet, truth be told, I don’t have a clue.

Not compared to the 3,000 child development experts, advocates, teachers and researchers who gathered in Indianapolis last week for the National Institute for Early Childhood Professional Development, sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

They attended more than 200 sessions that shared research, conveyed best practices and discussed challenges facing preschools nationwide.

As I sat in on several of the sessions and talked to participants I realized that I lacked a full appreciation of:

How success as an adult is shaped at an early age by such things as the environment in which a child’s brain develops. Developing the discipline to persevere, to be aware that actions have consequences, to learn how to learn, begins with infancy. Children who begin life in unstable and disorganized settings — too often the definition of single-parent families in poverty — frequently fall way behind in developing critical life skills.

How research — scans comparing the brains of at-risk children with those in a more stable environment — clearly shows the brain does not work as well and develop as fully in at-risk settings.

The impact of poverty on vocabulary. At three years, a child in poverty may know 400 words, compared to the 1,200 known by children in financially stable environments. Astoundingly, the vocabulary of a 5-year-old raised by parents in professional occupations tops that of an adult welfare parent. We think often that better parenting is the solution. It is part of the solution. But a parent without word and other cognitive skills can offer only so much to a child’s learning.

How early childhood education opportunities are an employee asset. In Indiana, companies like Lilly and Cummins helped finance a fund to support such goals as the training of more early childhood teachers. They did so after potential employees asked about the availability of preschool options.

Indiana trails the nation in terms of early childhood development options. Only 14.7 percent of Indiana 4-year-olds are enrolled in state pre-kindergarten, Head Start or special education programs, compared to 39 percent of 4-year-olds nationally, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. We are far behind all of our neighboring states.

Our licensing standards for childcare centers fall short of what is needed to ensure parents that their children are in a healthy environment that promotes brain development, social skills and learning.

The reasons we’re behind many other states are varied. Many Hoosiers object to what is perceived as government taking on the role of “nanny.” State funding likely would be tied to state regulation, and we’re skeptical of government’s role in our lives. Many people think children belong at home, not in a government-supported preschool. We are frugal.

Yet, there also are 45,000 Hoosiers in prison or jail, a population equal to that of cities like Lawrence, Kokomo and Columbus. Are there connections among the lack of early childhood education options, delayed mental and social development, and the high rate of incarceration?

I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

By Dennis Ryerson

Source: Indianapolis Star – http://goo.gl/qfcBJ