‘The closest thing we have to a panacea’

Jeane Anastas, Ph.D., LMSWThese are the recent words of Marian Wright Edelman, founder and director of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), describing the importance of investing in early childhood. Early childhood education is also a priority of the Obama administration, as the president made clear in his second inaugural address.

We know that the first five years of life are critical to brain development, suggesting that the 19th- and 20th-century public education model from kindergarten through high school is not good enough for the 21st century.

As NASW president, I was honored to attend the 40th anniversary celebration of the CDF, which included a daylong symposium on investing in all our children “zero to five.” The event inspired me to write this column and to recommit myself to this cause.

We as social workers may have missed the importance of this new commitment to early-childhood education, thinking that it was only about teaching and schools. However, there are two main parts to this effort. The first involves providing public pre-kindergarten programs, like those now in place in the District of Columbia for 3- and 4-year-olds, and similar programs targeted to low-income children, like Head Start and Early Head Start, whose funding has been gravely compromised by sequestration. The second set of programs is targeted to children ages 0 to 2 or 3.

These initiatives include access to quality daycare — care that does not only keep children safe while the parent or parents are employed but that also provides a stimulating, language-rich environment that will support school readiness. It also includes home-visiting programs for mothers and infants at risk up to age 2 or 3, depending on the model.

Thirteen evidence-based home visiting models have been identified to be replicated and adapted, many of which employ social workers.

Some of these models begin during pregnancy to prevent problems like premature birth and low birth weight, which can compromise early development from the beginning.

Both early-childhood education programs and home-visiting programs have been studied for years, and consistently show long-lasting positive effects on children’s health and development.

These positive effects include lower rates of teen pregnancy and less involvement in the juvenile justice system, as well as higher rates of high school graduation and enrollment in college. The findings are especially pronounced for low-income children who have two years of pre-kindergarten “schooling.”

Where does social work fit in? First, as a profession, we should strongly endorse the many proven home-visiting and pre-K programs that are out there. We must also work to ensure that all of these programs are fully funded and that these funds increase over time in order to serve all the children who could benefit from them. Federal funding is important, but D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has been able to generate local funding to make public pre-K for 3- and 4-year olds a reality in Washington.

In the world of home-visiting programs, there is also a growing realization that staff members are often not equipped to deal with the many mental and behavioral health problems that are encountered in the families they visit. In some programs, however, social workers already play a role in providing or making referrals to needed services.

Those engaged in classroom-based early education also find that there are often unmet needs in the home affecting the child, like an incarcerated or disabled parent, exposure to family and community violence, or mental and behavioral health issues in the household — all things that social workers know how to address.

The long-term “panacea” may be upstream, and we social workers must go there too.