This month, the US Department of Education approved Massachusetts state plan of $ 611 million to spend its K-12 COVID relief dollars. These funds will go a long way to address the “learning loss” that rightly concerns many educators and parents.
But the plan missed a big opportunity to create real, lasting change for children and families, by failing to allocate funds for child care and early childhood education.
Child care and preschool education have been ravaged by the pandemic. While some funds have been targeted at these programs, including initial stimulus funds and a commitment to child care in the FY2022 budget, they don’t go far enough.
During the pandemic, babies and toddlers were unable to have normal socio-emotional experiences – things as simple as interacting with other children at a local park or spending time with family. We know that these early interactions are essential for the rapid and fundamental development of the brain: 90% of growth occurs before the age of 5.
Time is not a renewable source, and we cannot recoup the past 16 months. But in the future, we should invest in child care and early childhood education, not exclude it. Here’s how:
Provide funding to keep child care centers open. As of December 2020, 5% of Massachusetts’ 8,200 licensed child care providers closed permanently. The state estimates that there are only 87% of places currently available in approved centers compared to before the pandemic. With the timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine for children still unknown and new variants emerging, parents are reluctant to enroll or re-enroll their children.
These low numbers are accompanied by increased operating costs. With a potential 60% increase in these costs (for things like PPE, air filtration systems, cleaning, and smaller classrooms), many providers, who are already operating at low margins and are receiving little to no public funding, may soon be faced with tough decisions about whether they are able to continue. This will force working families to make their own tough decisions. During the pandemic, more than one in three women were forced out of the workforce or reduced working hours to care for children during interruptions in childcare and schools. What if this trend continues for years?
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Prioritize social and emotional learning and well-being. Before we can cope with the mountain of learning losses our children have suffered, we must ensure their emotional well-being, especially for our youngest who have never even been to school. For children to learn, they must first develop the tools of emotional intelligence to identify, express and regulate their emotions and to understand those of others. When children are introduced to these skills from an early age – from birth – they are better able to focus, problem solve, understand complex concepts, and develop empathy and resilience.
Young children who are currently entering daycare and preschool have little or no experience of socializing with others, let alone being away from their families for long periods of time. They missed key opportunities to learn and develop their social and emotional skills. They are not used to a school or childcare routine outside of their own home, which often results in deregulated emotions (anger, frustration and sadness), separation anxiety, regressive behaviors, such as thumb sucking and bottle-feeding, or even physical ailments such as headaches or stomach aches. Educators need support and training to be able to identify and address these emotional responses.
Child care and preschool education have been ravaged by the pandemic.
Support teachers. We expect early childhood educators to develop the emotional, social and cognitive skills of our youngest learners – skills we know can be taught – but we do not guarantee their access to consistent training and professional development. We need to provide educators with continuous and consistent training and support, rooted in emotional competence and self-regulation. It is essential for the students and for the well-being of the educators.
A lack of sustained professional development and support was the case before the pandemic. Professional development has been systematically fragmented across the early childhood industry, with only teachers or particular programs providing training and skill building opportunities. Low levels of preparation, a lack of investment in professional supports, and little or no paid time off for professional learning leave early childhood educators unable to acquire these essential skills that can promote longevity in the workplace. .
Educators (and parents) who can reflect on their own emotions – and communicate their feelings to children – are better able to create an empathetic community. Not surprisingly, these educators are better positioned to handle the myriad of challenges that can arise in any preschool environment. In turn, the students they work with are better able to understand and regulate their own emotions, which helps them to elevate their critical thinking and problem solving, increase their self-esteem, increase their academic performance. , reduce behavioral incidents and build healthy relationships and empathy. for life.
Massachusetts missed a big opportunity to consolidate and prioritize child care
It is this type of training that can enhance child care and the profession, helping to stem the pandemic-related exodus of childcare professionals. And it is this type of training that is more essential than ever for children and educators. As a psychologist, I have worked with depressed and suicidal adolescents. I have seen with my own eyes what happens when children lack the awareness and ability to understand, manage and regulate their emotions. With feelings of increased depression and anxiety among our young people in the wake of the pandemic, educators must be well equipped to spot and guide children through these emotions. When we build that understanding up front, when children’s brains are developing the most, everyone is better off.
Massachusetts missed a great opportunity to consolidate and prioritize child care and make a meaningful difference for our youngest learners and their caregivers. Until we think about and fund child care as part of a comprehensive education system that begins at birth, we are failing our families, our children and the educators who work with them.
If we are to truly hope to recover from the trauma of the past year and a half, we must create a system that prepares our children for lifelong success and provides quality options, from birth, that respond to the emotional skills of children and educators. .
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