Obstacles to Instilling an Education Ethic

February 24, 2016

A pediatrician friend speaking to me about a child’s health was careful to point out the difference between a label and a diagnosis. “Labels are not helpful; diagnoses are.” When asked for further explanation, she said four characteristics found in a diagnosis may be absent in a label. First, there must be clear signs or symptoms. Second, a cause is identified. Next, a valid protocol for intervention or treatment is established. Finally, a prognosis can be determined. “All should be objectively established, which is not often the case when assigning a label.”

shutterstock_304124486While chronic absenteeism may not be a disease, it is garnering a great deal of attention. Signs of chronic absenteeism are evident which, if left unchecked, have a poor prognosis for those affected. Concern has rightfully trickled down from truancy in upper grades to inconsistent attendance in early education programs. Early educators claim the early warning signs of “trouble ahead” often can be seen in preschools and kindergarten, a claim confirmed by Fellows during an after-hours discussion at a recent CEELO Leadership Academy meeting.

The new CEELO FastFact on pre-K attendance addresses the inner core of chronic absenteeism’s “diagnosis”–causes and intervention. There may be any number of contributing factors: health issues, lack of transportation, parental perceptions, to name a few. Fellows expressed their belief that the biggest culprit was poverty. “When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, getting your child to school on time isn’t a main priority.” Similarly, aggressive intervention isn’t always required for chronic absenteeism, unless it has reached epidemic proportions. Whatever the means, intervention should be targeted, personalized, and respectful. A uniform approach will frequently miss the mark when multiple causes are involved. One thing was agreed upon–it is better to understand and address chronic absenteeism in the early years than to wait until later when attitudes and habits are ingrained.

Failure to regularly participate in and benefit from quality early learning programs doesn’t necessarily doom children. Some children and families are unable to attend consistently for good reason, yet are resilient, rising above their circumstances. The well-intentioned concern of early educators centers on missed opportunities for young children’s development and learning. These opportunities form a foundation of future learning and engagement, the lack of which can produce significant personal and social consequences.

Many speak to the necessity of possessing a strong work ethic in adolescence and adulthood. Perhaps we’d be better served by instilling an insatiable “education ethic” from the start, and making chronic absenteeism one diagnosed obstacle that can be overcome.

–Jim Squires, NIEER Fellow

Children and Poverty: the Role of Preschool

April 3, 2014

This guest post was written by NIEER Senior Research Fellow Cynthia Lamy. Dr. Lamy is a developmental and educational psychologist whose research and writing focuses primarily on children at risk of school failure, due to the many influences of poverty. She is currently working for the Robin Hood Foundation.

High quality preschool generates measurable, long-term impacts on children.  Many of us have known this for a long time, and have heard it or have said it ourselves many times. This is vital, valuable information for policymakers and for families. And for early childhood professionals, on days when boisterous 3-year olds are testing their teacher’s patience, and stressed parents are showing up late for pick-up, and policy advocates are explaining the graph to Congress one more time, it means that our career choice to focus on young children and their families, and our daily struggle to produce our best work, is truly worth every effort. kids in line

But in recent opportunities to speak about children and poverty to groups of people who could be loosely defined as potential child advocates–not researchers or policymakers, but knowledgeable or interested professional laypeople–when I asked how many people in the audience knew of preschool’s long-term effects or had heard of the longitudinal studies of preschool effects on children’s later adult outcomes, I was shocked to find the number of raised hands in the single digits.

Perry, Abecedarian, Chicago–they had never heard of any of them. An audience of educated, interested people was once again astonished to learn about the long-term impacts, as I told them about the longitudinal studies, including New Jersey’s Abbott district findings.

Once again I found myself describing, in lay terms, the wonder of it all. It may seem astonishing, I say, but high quality preschool is a powerful weapon against poverty. Rigorous research has found that children lucky enough to attend a wonderful preschool program–with warm and knowledgeable teachers who are specially certified to teach young children as they play or are busy with activities, incorporating new vocabulary into dramatic play, heading off behavior problems with a timely tete-a-tete about sharing, scaffolding math skills during snack time–these children go on to be retained in grade or placed in Special Education at nearly half the rate of their less fortunate peers; to graduate high school at much higher rates; to engage in less crime; and to earn more money as adults, becoming contributors to society and depending less on the national safety net.

Having made the conceptual journey from early childhood education to adult outcomes, the remarkable idea that high quality preschool is actually poverty-fighting is a short leap.

The benefits of high quality preschool exceed the costs of the programs, which is great for the children, their families, taxpayers, and for everyone, but this means much more than benefits to individuals, or even to school districts, or criminal justice systems.  This positive social return on investment also signals to us the possibility of an effective and efficient fight against poverty on a societal scale.

How different would American poverty be if every child had equal access to high quality educational experiences from as early as possible in their development, before the impact of poverty diminishes their potential? What if every child received warm, playful, informed, individualized early education no matter who their parents are or where they live? Excellent preschool, carefully implemented to maintain high quality, on a scale wide enough to provide access to everyone in need, is an essential policy lever to protect the developmental potential of vulnerable children. That broad protection will lessen the chronic, inter-generational nature of American poverty. It sounds like a grand statement, but it’s just the natural consequence of strong early support for human development.

There are a few mechanisms by which preschool can powerfully contribute to the fight against poverty, as reported by Barnett and others, Heckman and others, and here. One mechanism is the effect, direct or indirectly through the family, on children’s educational success.  It is obvious that children must succeed in school to grow up and out of poverty. The direct path of the effect of preschool is through a positive impact on some combination of children’s cognition, skills, and expectations for themselves. The indirect path is through improved parenting and increased parental awareness, engagement in, and support of their children’s educational experiences and school success, due to the preschool. These are the goals of every good early childhood program.

Another mechanism is an impact on increased parental earnings. With their children happy and safe in good early childhood programs, parents work more hours.

Then there is the potential for improving the quality of public educational systems, especially in high-poverty school districts, as best practices in preschool ‘trickle up’ to elementary schools.  This is not easy to accomplish, but pre-K-3rd grade models are an example of this effort, as are transition programs that bring preschool and early elementary staff members together to share their best practices. Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), with their cross-auspice implementation and focus on information sharing, program standards, and quality supports, may also help spread the best of early childhood widely, including to early elementary schools, alerting parents to the importance of high quality programs all along the continuum of their children’s development.

Taking the concept out one more contextual level: when schools improve, neighborhoods can begin to turn around in a virtuous cycle, further attracting education-oriented families. Without school improvement, there is little chance of that.

But there is another way that excellent early childhood programs can contribute to the fight against poverty, adding a timely and direct push against poverty just when many families are motivated to make a change–when their kids are very young. It is a tradition within the early childhood field that goes back all the way to the original objective of Head Start, to support the whole child and to respect the family. It arises from the capacity of early childhood professionals to perceive and understand the influence of problems in the family system on children’s development, and to be sensitive and supportive family partners. Early childhood programs are perfectly positioned to more effectively link families to the supportive opportunities they need, tailored specifically for them and their set of challenges.

Poverty is a complicated tangle of problems. Not all, but many, families in poverty need serious help. Parents need jobs that pay a living wage, or the adult education and training to move toward better employment. Families need stable, affordable, healthy homes. Often, families fighting poverty need a good pro bono lawyer. Everyone needs timely, affordable access to doctors and dentists. Families may be eligible for programs such as SNAP or WIC, but may be unaware. Family members with addictions or mental health issues; people living in fear of violence; older youth who need a safe, supportive haven after school; family members struggling with incarceration or reintegration into society–all need access to the assistance that would help them solve their problems, and help their young children grow to be healthier, happier, and more successful in school. Early childhood programs are in a unique position to tune in to families’ needs and to partner with families as they strive to do better for their children on a daily basis.

This is not a call to expand services. Asking early childhood program staff to extend their job description to the direct support of families at risk is asking too much, stretching resources thin, and creating distraction from the main educational mission. We have learned this lesson. Moreover, the support of families in need often requires specific knowledge and deep, often clinical, expertise, not typically housed in early childhood programs. Early childhood professionals should do for children and families what they do best. This is not a call for early childhood programs to take on even more responsibility, in addition to all that they already do.

But, this is a call for early childhood professionals to more explicitly recognize, understand, and value their natural position in the fight against poverty. It is a call to develop stronger working relationships between early childhood programs and other helping organizations. It is a call for early childhood professionals to be even smarter about the risks the families of their young students face, knowing where to send them for the support they need. And when there is little or no local capacity for the needed services, this is a call for early childhood professionals to be a voice for the expansion of those services–high quality services only, of course. If there is one thing we appreciate in the field of early childhood, it is the value of best practices.

It turns out that other programs, when they are of high quality, also produce measurable and cost-effective improvements for families, doing their part to push back against poverty. And across many poverty-related fields there is a growing recognition of the value of strong collaboration to create a true safety net–or, really, an opportunity net–for vulnerable families.  Early childhood programs, in fact all schools, should be part of that, taking a stronger stance in support of the families they serve.   No one program can solve all the complex problems of poverty. But, on a policy level, early childhood programs could take up what is actually a very natural, and potentially a particularly cost-effective, role, becoming powerful and persuasive proponents of young families in need, catalyzing and encouraging the development of best practice supports for families in their communities, and solving many more problems that are detrimental to children’s development, while children are still young.

We know that high quality preschool is a critical component in a set of policies and programs that have measurable impacts and that protect the development of children from the destructive effects of poverty. Preschool could be even more than that. It could fight poverty in real time.



Barnett, W. S., Young, J., & Schweinhart, L. (1998).  How preschool education influences long-term cognitive development and school success.  In W. S. Barnett & S. S. Boocock (Eds.), Early care and education for children in poverty: Promises, programs, and long-term results.  Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press.

Barnett, W.S., Jung, K., Youn, M. & Frede, E.C. (2013).  The Abbott preschool program longitudinal effects study: 5th grade follow-up.  New Brunswick, NJ: NIEER.

Bayer, P., Ferreira, F. & McMillan, R. (2007).  A unified framework for measuring preferences for schools and neighborhoods.  The Journal of Political Economy, 115(4), 588-638.,

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., & Barnett, W. S. (2008).Meta-Analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record, 112 (3). Retrieved March 31, 2014, from  http://spot.colorado.edu/~camillig/Papers/38_15440.pdf

Cellini, S., Ferreira, F. & Rothstein, J. (2008).  The value of school facilities: Evidence from the dynamic regression-discontinuity design.  Working paper # 14516.  Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Forry, N. & Hofferth, S. (2011).  Maintaining work: The influence of child care subsidies on child care-related work disruptions.  Journal of Family Issues, 32(3), 346-368.

Heckman, J., Malofeeva, E., Pinto, R. & Savelyev, P. (2010).  Understanding the mechanisms through which an influential early childhood program boosted adult outcomes.  Presentation at the Measuring Education Outcomes: Moving from Enrollment to Learning Conference at the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, June 2, 2010, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.

Lamy, C. E. (2012).  Poverty is a Knot and Preschool is an Untangler. In R. C. Pianta, W. S. Barnett, L. M Justice and S. M. Sheridan (Eds.) Handbook of Early Childhood Education.  NY: Guilford Press.

Matthews, M. (2006).  Child care assistance helps families work: A review of the effect of subsidy receipt on employment.  Washington, DC: CLASP.

Emergency Preparation in Early Education Programs

October 29, 2013

Many families make emergency preparedness a priority in the home, explaining to small children what to do in case of a fire, devising “family reunification plans,” and stocking up on supplies in case of an emergency. However, a recent report indicates that schools and child care centers may not be giving safety the same focus. A year out from Hurricane Sandy, we’re providing resources on preparing for and recovering from emergencies, with a special focus on children.

Save the Children released its annual report examining state-by-state policies on emergency preparedness policies. Highlighting incidents as diverse as hurricanes, tornadoes, and school shootings, Save the Children graded the nation’s overall response on planning protection for children as “unsatisfactory.” Save the Children graded states on whether they required school and child care centers to meet the following four recommendations from the National Commission on Children and Disasters:

  • Evacuation/Relocation Plan: All categories of child care providers have a written plan covering multiple situations for evacuating children and safely relocating them to an alternate site.
  • Family-Child Reunification Plan: All categories of child care providers have a written plan for notifying parents in the event of an emergency, and reuniting children with their families.
  • Children with Special Needs Plan: All categories of child care providers have a written plan specifying how the needs of children with disabilities and those with access and functional needs would be addressed in the case of an emergency.
  • K-12 Multiple Disaster Plan: All public schools, including charter schools, to have a written plan that covers a number of emergency scenarios, including those resulting in evacuation, lock-down, and shelter-in-place. Fire/tornado drills alone are not adequate to address these needs.

States vary widely in meeting each standard (see Figure 1). Particularly troubling is the fact that just over half (53 percent) of states require detailed plans from child care centers explaining how they would tend to the special needs of children with disabilities during an emergency. For children with special needs–perhaps a child with autism who is overwhelmed by the sound of a fire alarm or a child with limited mobility because he is in a wheelchair–special attention is particularly important.

Figure 1: Percentage of States & D.C. Meeting Each Standard


Save the Children also provides an interactive map to explore which states require each policy. While the grades in the report focus specifically on the need to improve state policies, Save the Children also offers resources to support both child care providers and families in developing emergencies plans. The basic guidance is the same for both:

  • Make a plan
  • Have a communications strategy
  • Practice emergency drills, and teach children skills like calling 911
  • Create a disaster kit, including important documents, first aid supplies, activities to entertain children, and food

Natural disasters and violence are dangerous for anyone, but young children are particularly susceptible to negative consequences, as “toxic stress” can have both short- and long-term impacts when it occurs during a crucial period of brain development. The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University provides resources documenting the effects of such stress, along with recommendations for prevention and remediation, including a “Tackling Toxic Stress” series. Center-based learning experiences can help children cope with such stress, as highlighted in a recent NIEER brief, particularly when coupled with supports like parenting programs and home-visiting, to reduce toxic stress in the home.

There must also be a focus on how to help kids cope with tragedy they’ve already experienced. As we saw repeatedly in 2012-

Girl dressed like firefighter

A student tries on a firefighter’s coat and helmet at the Child Development Center on Kleber Kaserne in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Accessed via the U.S. Army Flickr Stream, used in the public domain.

– with the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma; the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings; and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which Save the Children reports impacted over 250 child care centers about a year ago– schools can be ground zero for both tragedy and recovery. Here’s how parents and teachers can help mitigate the emotional turmoil kids experience.

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides tips on coping with disaster, organized by children’s age range.
  • The Federal Office of Head Start has numerous resources on helping children in Head Start programs through emergencies, including resources on social-emotional support for both children and adults and an Emergency Preparedness Manual for providers.
  • Parents and teachers may be unsure how to talk to children about what they have experienced without adding stress. PBS provides general information on how to talk to children about news in an age-appropriate way.
  • The National Association of School Psychologists provides tips for talking to children about violence that can also guide conversations after natural disasters.
  • Sesame Street offers a number of interactive resources for parents and children addressing emergencies, mostly focused on natural disasters.

It is particularly unpleasant to think about disasters affecting children in schools and child care centers–places that are meant to be safe spaces for growth and exploration–but it is the responsibility of all adults who care for children to face this task. The Fred Rogers Company provides guidance on how to help children navigate scary events with Mr. Rogers’ classic advice:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers–so many caring people in this world.

Policymakers, parents, and program directors can be those helpers.

-Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Putting the Spotlight on Young Children: NAEYC’s Week of the Young Child

April 23, 2012

This week marks the annual Week of the Young Child celebration, sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). This year’s theme is “Early Years Are Learning Years,” a sentiment we fully endorse!

NAEYC’s website has a treasure trove of materials for the Week of the Young Child, particularly as associated with six focus areas. We encourage you to view their suggested activities and related materials, but we also include some additional relevant resources for each area below.

Raising Public Awareness

Public Policy and Advocacy

Reading and Writing

  • NIEER’s policy brief on early literacy includes a review of the literature and recommendations.
  • Dorothy Strickland, NIEER Distinguished Research Fellow, testified before the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on early literacy learning experiences. Read her full testimony here.
  • Dr. Strickland’s presentation for NAEYC on what makes a good book can be downloaded from NIEER’s website.
  • This NIEER blog post includes additional information and resources on literacy.

Violence and Child Abuse Prevention

  • Preschool interventions can have the greatest influence on reducing childhood aggression and preventing youth violence, as described in this report from the Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development.
  • High-quality early childhood education can reduce future crime and victimization, as explained in this blog post from NIEER and the National Center for Victims of Crime.
  • The Week of the Young Child also corresponds this year with National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. The Office for Victims of Crime within the U.S. Department of Justice has more information on this important observance.
  • Fight Crime: Invest in Kids has been highlighting child abuse prevention in their 1560 Campaign.

Child Health

  • This week is also World Immunization Week; find out more about state policies on pre-K immunizations in this blog post.
  • Children’s health is inextricably linked with their diets. Find our more about the growing epidemic of childhood obesity in these blog posts.
  • Because of the connection between children’s nutrition and their ability to function in a classroom setting, many state programs have policies related to meals in pre-K.
  • Early childhood education has been proven to provide better outcomes not only on children’s health while enrolled in preschool programs, but also on their health later in adulthood.
  • For a global perspective, become familiar with advocacy organizations that support child health initiatives and early learning opportunities, such as Shakira’s Barefoot Foundation or UNICEF.

Creativity and Play

  • Arts education can help preschoolers develop in other domains including math, language, critical thinking, and social-emotional, as explained by NIEER’s own Judi Stevenson-Boyd and a group of experts on Caucus: New Jersey.
  • NIEER’s Kim Brenneman provides ideas on how science-based lessons could be delivered through everyday life activities, such as playing with Mr. Potato Head or engaging in a game of golf.
  • The Ultimate Block Party is an event that highlights the importance of play-based learning for young children.
  • NIEER examines the role of technology in children’s play in this blog post and the interaction between play, intelligence, and learning in another post.
  • Learn more about the best ways to use technology to benefit young learners in this position statement from NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College.
  • This presentation from NIEER’s Shannon Ayers and Ellen Frede discusses the importance of learning through play against the backdrop of preschool assessments.

For the Week of the Young Child, we’ll be working on NIEER’s pre-K research, listening to the voices of early childhood and education advocates, and spending time with the young children in our lives. How will you observe this important week?

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

Giving Kids a Shot at Success: World Immunization Week

April 20, 2012

Beginning April 21, the World Health Organization (WHO) is launching World Immunization Week, a global awareness campaign about the importance of vaccines in preventing diseases like measles and polio.  According to WHO’s website, “immunization is one of the most successful and cost-effective health interventions and prevents debilitating illness, disability and death from vaccine-preventable diseases.” An estimated 2 to 3 million deaths are prevented annually due to vaccinations but, as of 2010, 19.3 million infants were not up to date on their immunizations. And, according to the United Nations Foundation, of the nearly 8 million children worldwide under the age of 5 who die each year from preventable diseases, a quarter of those deaths could have been prevented with proper vaccination.

Part of the play therapy center of Drottning Silvias barn- och ungdoms-sjukhus (Queen Silvia Children’s Hospital) in Göteborg, Sweden.
© Jen Fitzgerald

In the United States, the statistics are more uplifting – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011, 95 percent of parents reported that their children got or would get all of their immunizations. However, approximately 5 percent of parents opted to decline some vaccines while 2 percent were not inclined to vaccinate their children at all, despite research from the American Academy of Pediatrics finding no long-term negative consequences to receiving all recommended immunizations.

As parents of preschoolers can attest, most centers require that children’s immunizations be up to date before enrolling. In addition, many programs require other health screenings before or during the preschool years. Pre-K is an important early opportunity to detect vision, hearing, and health problems that may impair a child’s learning and development. With this in mind, NIEER’s quality standards checklist includes a requirement that state-funded pre-K programs provide vision, hearing, and health screenings.  Along with our benchmarks on nutrition and support services, screenings and referrals support children’s overall well-being, including their physical and mental health.

Assuring that children are immunized is one element of comprehensive health screening (the others are health/weight/BMI, blood pressure, psychosocial/behavioral, and full physical exam). For The State of Preschool 2011 report, we specifically asked states about their pre-K policies regarding immunizations. The good news is that 40 state pre-K programs (out of 51 across the nation) require preschool students have immunizations; in addition, the District of Columbia’s two pre-K programs also require immunizations. The remaining state programs typically leave decisions about screenings up to local district discretion. (For more information about screening and referral requirements, see page 178 of Appendix A.)

Figure 1. State Pre-K Programs That Do Not Require Immunizations in State Policy*
California Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts
Florida South Carolina 4K
Kansas Pre-K Pilot Vermont Act 62
Massachusetts Vermont EEI
Nebraska Wisconsin 4K

*This figure does not include states that do not have a state-funded pre-K program. Those states are: Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

Figure 2. State Pre-K Programs Requiring Immunizations
Alabama New Jersey ECPA
Alaska New Jersey ELLI
Arkansas New Mexico
Colorado New York
Connecticut North Carolina
Delaware Ohio
Georgia Oklahoma
Illinois Oregon
Iowa Shared Visions Pennsylvania EABG
Iowa SVPP Pennsylvania HSSAP
Kansas At-Risk Pennsylvania K4 & SBPK
Kentucky Rhode Island
Louisiana 8(g) South Carolina CDEPP
Louisiana LA4 Tennessee
Louisiana NSECD Texas
Maine Virginia
Maryland Washington
Michigan West Virginia
Minnesota Wisconsin Head Start
Missouri D.C. PEEP
New Jersey Abbott D.C. Charter

Still, there are 11 states without state-funded pre-K, and children in those states may be missing out on disease-preventing immunizations until they reach kindergarten or even first grade. The same is true for children who are shut out of state-funded pre-K due to the limited access to programs in many states. A rise in the spread of measles in 2011 indicates that there’s still more work to be done to protect all of our citizens, especially for those traveling internationally where vaccination rates are lower.

As immunizations increase across the globe, more and more children are being offered the chance to grow up healthy. This, in turn, improves their health, happiness, and ability to learn and succeed in school and later in life.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

A Life Devoted to Healthy Development for All: J. Fraser Mustard

November 28, 2011

The Toronto Star recently reported the sad news that Canadian physician and researcher Dr. James Fraser Mustard died in his home at age 84. In addition to being a part of the research team that discovered aspirin could help reduce the likelihood of heart disease, Dr. Mustard studied early childhood development with his research influencing his home province’s education policy. His Early Years Study was used by the Ministry of Education in Ontario when it established a program to offer full-day kindergarten throughout the province. His broader body of work influenced early childhood policy around the globe.

Dr. Mustard was a strong global disseminator of the science base for public investments in early childhood development.  He was expert in tying together diverse research from medicine, neuroscience, and social science so as to make clear to virtually any audience the connections and implications. Dr. Mustard had a keen understanding of the impacts of early brain development on later outcomes including adult health.  He also understood the importance of showing policymakers and the public that the relationship between socio-economic background and human development is a gradient—a smooth continuous slope—and that the level and steepness of these slopes varies considerably across nations depending on their public policies.  As he wrote in 2010:

“Results from developmental neurobiology studies and animal and human studies provide strong evidence that early neurobiological development affects health (physical and mental), behaviour and learning in the later stages of life. Countries that provide quality universal early development programs for families with young children tend to out-perform countries in which the early development programs are chaotic.”

Mustard was born in Toronto, Ontario and attended the University of Toronto. He later conducted postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge before returning to the University of Toronto as a research associate. He was also involved with the National Heart Foundation of Canada, the Canadian Heart Foundation, and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, amongst others. Dr. Mustard was a founding member of both the McMaster Medical School and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, a multidisciplinary nonprofit that has conducted research on topics such as economic growth and policy, experience-based brain and biological development,  human-environment interactions, human development, population health, and successful societies.

Beginning in the 1980s, Dr. Mustard became more involved with research on early childhood development and learning. He became the head of the Founders’ Network, a group dedicated to studying economic and social impacts on health and human development, with an emphasis on early childhood. Dr. Mustard’s research work produced the 1999 report on the Early Years Study commissioned by the government of Ontario and follow-up reports in 2002 and 2007. Collectively, the reports criticized Canada’s commitment to preschool learning and called for national early childhood development initiatives on par with K-12 education as a means to promote lifelong healthy outcomes. In 2004, Dr. Mustard co-founded the Council for Early Childhood Development, an organization whose goals include promoting the message of the Early Years Study and further studying early childhood development.

We are heartened that Dr. Mustard’s work proceeds on. Less than a week after his death, a third report based on the Early Years Study was published, recommending that children as young as 2 years old should have access to voluntary prekindergarten education. And, the full-day kindergarten initiative in Ontario continues to roll out, with final implementation slated for September 2014.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

Eating Right, Learning Right

October 10, 2011

The important link between children’s health and their education is being highlighted this week with the celebration of National School Lunch Week. This year’s theme is “School Lunch – Let’s Grow Healthy,” as part of a three-month long campaign by the School Nutrition Association to highlight the importance of school lunch programs. Common sense tells us that children with empty stomachs can’t concentrate on classroom learning or homework. With this in mind, schools and pre-K programs often offer snacks and meals throughout the day to make sure children are fully prepared to learn and excel. The federal Child & Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), administered through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), provides guidelines for serving nutritious meals and snacks in child care centers and afterschool programs. In addition, providing nutritious meals to children is a key component of the federal Head Start program’s services to low-income children and families.

Each year, NIEER gives state pre-K initiatives a rating based on meeting 10 quality standards benchmarks, which address a variety of quality components including services such as meals. As we stated in The State of Preschool 2010, “these items are included because children’s overall well-being and success in school involves not only their cognitive development but also their physical and social/emotional health.” In order to meet our benchmark on meals, state programs must require by policy that all programs, regardless of hours of operation, offer at least one meal each day.

Unfortunately, in the 2009-2010 school year, only 24 of 52 state-funded pre-K programs met the benchmark of at least one meal being required in state policy. (See Table 1 for a list of the programs meeting the benchmark for required meals.) Twenty of these 24 programs specifically mention lunch in their meal requirements.

Table 1. State programs requiring at least one meal in all pre-K classes

Alabama Louisiana LA4 Oregon
Alaska Louisiana NSECD Pennsylvania HSSAP
Arkansas Maryland Rhode Island
Delaware Minnesota South Carolina CDEPP
Georgia New Jersey Abbott Tennessee
Iowa Shared Visions New Mexico Washington
Kentucky North Carolina West Virginia
Louisiana 8(g) Oklahoma Wisconsin Head Start

However, only five programs – Pennsylvania EABG, Pennsylvania K4 & SBPK, Vermont Act 62, Vermont EEI, and Virginia – reported that no meals or snacks are required by state policy. The remaining 23 programs either reported that snacks were required and/or that meals are required for full-day programs but not half-day programs.

For the 2009-2010 school year, we also asked states to report on whether meals and snacks need to meet nutritional guidelines and found that all but 10 programs require this. (See Table 2 for a list of those programs not requiring programs to use nutritional guidelines.) Of those meeting nutritional guidelines, all were using federal nutrition guidelines set by the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Table 2. State programs not requiring the use of nutritional guidelines

Florida Pennsylvania K4 & SBPK
Illinois Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts
Nevada Rhode Island
New Jersey ELLI Vermont Act 62
Pennsylvania EABG Vermont EEI

The federal Head Start program’s nutritional guidelines play a role here as all five state programs that are Head Start supplements met the benchmark for meals. This is particularly noteworthy in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where the states’ other pre-K initiatives do not meet the meal requirement benchmark while the Head Start supplements do.

As with any other of the quality standards we report on in the State Preschool Yearbook series, it is important to remember that we are discussing policy here and not necessarily practice. While not every state policy requires that all programs offer at least one meal, some, or perhaps even all, of those programs may exceed the policy and do so. Still, with only 24 state pre-K programs on the record with a commitment to providing their students with at least one meal a day, we have a long way to go before we can truly celebrate school nutrition.

Child nutrition is of increasing concern as childhood obesity rates increase while food insecurity also spreads. President Obama’s proclamation of this week pointed to the need for collaboration throughout communities to bring students healthy food every day at school, a goal toward which we still work. At a time when Sesame Street has created a new Muppet to address the issue of food insecurity—the 17 million children in families who don’t know where their next meal comes from—it is clear that providing nutritious, consistent meals to children in school can go a long way to improving their daily lives.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

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