What Early Education Can Teach Child Welfare

By Williams, Meghan | Children's Voice, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

What Early Education Can Teach Child Welfare


Williams, Meghan, Children's Voice


Lessons about starting services early, partnering with parents, finding skilled workers, and measuring outcomes

The early education and child welfare systems have much in common: an ongoing challenge of reconciling a national commitment but local implementation; an uphill battle to define and then implement best practices; an underpaid workforce that often finds their passion can't make up for their paychecks. And, at the core, these two systems serve many ofthe same children.

"Early education" has become a buzzword in the last several years, with backers of many stripes - academics, businessmen, celebrities - telling parents to play Mozart to pregnant bellies, and open books as soon as babies open their eyes. At the same time, in many ways child welfare has struggled to keep up with the demand for its services in every corner of the country, facing damning press reports of child neglect, abuse, and even death when there are gaps in those services. When both systems work, they create the same end result: happy, healthy children who grow into productive members of society. So what does America's early childhood education movement have to teach child welfare? Leaders in the field share the lessons they've learned around four key goals that both branches hope to achieve.

Starting Services Early

Jill Stamm is the director and cofounder of the New Directions Institute for Infant Brain Development. Based in Phoenix, Arizona, New Directions is part ofthe Arizona's Children Association, a CWLA member agency. To Stamm, the combination of early education and child welfare was natural, because the connection is obvious - child development is the preventive branch of child welfare. "We're trying to prevent some ofthe very things that. . . the child welfare system has been trying to remediate," Stamm explains. And the scientific evidence emphasizes the need to start these services early. "Although change is always possible, and although we never give up on a child. . . the earlier a system wires up, the harder it is to change."

"For our work, it's important to know that the socialemotional center ofthe brain wires really early," she continues. For example, a teenager dealing with emotional and social connection issues likely started down the wrong path about the time that teenager was a baby learning to walk. "The ability to regulate your own mental state develops pretty early," Stamm says. "A lot ofthe social-emotional regulation takes place in the first 15 to 18 months." For these systems to develop properly, they "depend on strong, consistent, loving people" surrounding a baby. Stamm emphasizes what this means for the child welfare system: "We need to look at permanency way earlier than we used to; we need our [family court] judges to be educated about early development."

Parents are receptive to the message about brain development, Stamm says. "I think there's something pretty magical about this information. It can pique their interest to a point that they're paying a special kind of attention." She notes that parents love their children, particularly during early infancy, and want to do things to help those children grow and develop. Stamm says parents are usually pleasantly surprised to learn that "being nice to a little baby has these long-term payoffs."

The New Directions Institute has created some products and curricula that take advantage of this parental interest and at the same time start education very early. Some of these products, called Brain Boxes, are plastic containers "filled with the best examples of toys and books at ages and stages, all the way from birth to age five-and-a-half," Stamm explains. Boxes for infants, babies, toddlers, and preschoolers are ready-made tools for engaging parents and children in the learning process together. Cards in each box offer very explicit instructions - "open this book and hold your child on your lap," Stamm says - and offers facts about why this type of activity is important. …

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