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Virtual rally pushes early learning investments

Chelsea Jones | 8/12/2013, 10:31 a.m.
A mother reads to her young daughter The Dallas Examiner

The Dallas Examiner

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius led a national effort last month to highlight the importance of a high-quality education for every child, from the start. During online panel discussions, experts urged viewers to demand that early learning investments begin with babies and toddlers during a virtual rally on July 8. The event, “Rally 4 Babies: Learning Happens from the Start,” was streamed live on YouTube using Google + Hangouts on Air.

Experts included Sebelius; Duncan; Alma Powell, board chair of America’s Promise Alliance; Matthew Melmed, executive director of Zero to Three; Laurie Berkner, children’s musician; and Jennifer Garner, actor and artist ambassador for Save the Children. The event host was Soledad O’Brien, journalist and CEO of Starfish Media Group.

Melmed kicked off the event with strong research that proved learning begins at birth. He explained how rapid brain development during the first few months of life indicates early learning.

Next, Duncan proposed early education as a way to close educational achievement gaps.

“That gap is an opportunity gap. It’s not an intelligence gap. It’s not a skills gap. It is a lack of opportunities that our babies have been missing. If we can close that gap with high-quality, pre-kindergarten experiences, then our children will enter kindergarten with their academic and socialization skills intact, and will be ready to be successful for the rest of their lives,” Duncan said.

Powell added that in addition to early education, young children need “five promises” to be successful. These promises include caring adults, a healthy start, safe environments, effective education, and opportunities to be involved in the community.

Even young children who have three of the five promises are likely to be successful. However, Powell stressed that too many young children have less than three of these promises.

She noted that those who come from disadvantaged families often start school behind and have a difficult time catching up, which increases their chances of dropping out of school in the future.

Music was discussed as being important in early education as well. Berkner explained that infants and toddlers usually learn new words through songs. In addition, she described how music helps promote a young child’s emotional well-being. For example, she mentioned that her song We Are the Dinosaurs allows young children to roar and demonstrate anger, an emotion that they may be discouraged from expressing inside a daycare or classroom.

Furthermore, the panelists defined the relationship infants and toddlers have with their parents as the most critical feature of early education. They recounted studies that show parents are the first and best teachers for young children. Thus, they concluded that young children could be negatively affected by poor relationships with their parents.

Panelists further commented that some parents, especially young and single parents in disadvantaged communities, might not know how to form positive relationships with their children. To counter this problem, they suggested home-visiting programs as a solution.

Home-visiting programs would entail professional counselors visiting parents inside their homes to help them develop effective parenting skills and positive relationships with their children. Sebelius remarked that the programs are proven to be successful but don’t reach as many families who need them.