This month, the U.S. Department of Education approved Massachusetts’ $611 million state plan for spending its K-12 COVID relief dollars. Those funds will go a long way towards addressing the "learning loss" so many educators and parents are rightly concerned about.
But the plan missed a big opportunity to create real, long-lasting change for children and families, by failing to allocate funds to child care and early childhood education.
Child care and early education were ravaged by the pandemic. Though some funds have been targeted to those programs, including initial stimulus funds and a commitment to child care in the Fiscal Year-2022 budget, they don't go nearly far enough.
During the pandemic, babies and toddlers have been unable to have normal social-emotional experiences — things as simple as interacting with other children at a local park or spending time with family. We know these early interactions are essential to the brain’s rapid, foundational development: 90% of growth happens before the age of 5.
Time is not a renewable source, and we can’t recover the last 16 months. But going forward, we should invest in child care and early childhood education, not exclude it. Here’s how:
Offer 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 seats available now in licensed centers compared to before the pandemic. With the timing of a COVID-19 vaccine for children still unknown and new variants emerging, parents are hesitant to enroll or re-enroll their children.
These low enrollment numbers are coupled with increased operating costs. With a potential 60% increase in those costs (for things including PPE, air filtration systems, cleaning and smaller class sizes), many providers, who already operate on thin margins and receive little to no public funding, may soon face difficult decisions about whether they are able to continue. That will force working families to make their own difficult decisions. During the pandemic, more than one in three women were forced to leave the workforce or reduce their work hours to care for children during child care and school disruptions. What if this trend continues for years?
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Prioritize social and emotional learning and well-being. Before we can address the mountain of learning loss our children have experienced, we must attend to their emotional well-being, especially for our youngest kids who have never even been inside a school. For children to learn, they must first develop the tools of emotional intelligence to identify, express, and regulate their emotions, and understand others’. When children are introduced to these skills at the earliest age — right from birth — they are better able to focus, problem-solve, understand complex concepts and develop empathy and resilience.
The young children currently entering child care and preschool have little or no experience socializing with others, let alone being away from their families for extended periods of time. They have missed out on key opportunities to learn and develop their social and emotional skills. They aren’t used to a school or child care routine outside of their own homes, often resulting in dysregulated emotions (anger, frustration, and sadness), separation anxiety, regressed behaviors, like thumb sucking and drinking from a bottle, or even physical ailments such as headaches or stomach pain. Educators need support and training to be able to identify and address these emotional responses.
Child care and early education were ravaged by the pandemic.
Support teachers. We expect early childhood educators to build our youngest learners’ emotional, social and cognitive skills – skills we know can be taught – yet we don’t ensure their access to consistent training and professional development. We must offer educators continuous, consistent training and support that is rooted in emotional competence and self-regulation. It’s essential for students and for educators’ well-being.
A lack of sustained professional development and support was the case before the pandemic. Professional development has been systemically fragmented throughout the early childhood industry, with only particular teachers or programs offering training and skill-building opportunities. Low standards of preparation, a lack of investment in professional supports, and little to no paid time off for professional learning leave early childhood educators unable to build 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 occur in any preschool environment. In turn, the students they work with are better able to understand and regulate their own emotions, helping them elevate their critical thinking and problem solving, heighten their self-esteem, increase their academic performance, decrease behavior incidents, and build healthy relationships and empathy for life.
Massachusetts missed a big opportunity to solidify and prioritize child care
It’s this type of training that can elevate child care and the profession, helping to curb the pandemic-related exodus of early childhood professionals. And it’s this type of training that is essential for children and educators, now more than ever. As a psychologist, I worked with depressed and suicidal teenagers. I saw, first-hand, what happens when kids lack the awareness and ability to understand, manage and regulate their emotions. With increased feelings of depression and anxiety among our youth following the pandemic, educators need to be well-equipped to spot and guide children through these emotions. When we build this understanding from the start, when children’s brains are developing the most, everyone is better off.
Massachusetts missed a big opportunity to solidify and prioritize child care and make a significant difference for our youngest learners and their caregivers. Until we think about and fund child care as a part of a comprehensive education system that begins at birth, we are failing our families, children and the educators who work with them.
If we truly hope to bounce back from the trauma of the last year and a half, we must create a system that sets our children up for lifelong success and offers quality options, starting at birth, that address the emotional competencies of children and educators.