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Closing The Gap: The Link Between Early Childhood Education And Health

This is our fourth installment of the ongoing series “Closing the Gap,” where we explore disparities in the Chicago area and talk with people working to address them.

In the coming months, we’ll dig into gaps that exist in mental health services, education and transportation. But this week, we’re examining the stark life expectancy gap between some of Chicago’s richest and poorest residents.

Earlier this summer, a New York University study found residents in one section of Streeterville live to be 90 years old on average, while in a part of Englewood — just 9 miles south — residents make it to 60. This represents the largest life expectancy gap in the country.

In this fourth installment, Reset explores how early childhood education may help strengthen families and improve health outcomes in vulnerable communities.

We recently sat down with Catherine Main, a senior lecturer and program coordinator at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She leads a team that recently won a $3.8 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education to support early childhood education.

We also hear from two people who are working to close the life expectancy gap by providing access to quality early childhood education and health resources: Marcy Sayfer of the Erikson Institute and Maricela Garcia of the nonprofit Gads Hill Center.

Below are highlights from our conversations.

How ‘high-quality’ early childhood education impacts health

Catherine Main: One of the things research has shown from the Perry Preschool Project is that children who participated in this high-quality early childhood center ended up as adults having better health outcomes. And I think that that is related to the strong foundations that children and families get from participating in a high-quality early childhood program. A good program can provide buffers against (trauma or other issues families may experience in low-income communities), and that’s critical to their brain development and their lifelong health.

Health is related to the context in which you live, your environment, your home, your community. And I think we really have the potential to change things by really supporting our community-based organizations who do this work. One of the things I’ve been thinking about at the University of Illinois, for instance, where a campus that has a medical campus, dentistry, social work, education, public health — all of those elements actually need to come together because that’s what our children actually need. It’s not just an issue about education. All of those pieces, when brought together in a meaningful way, I think will make a difference.

On toxic stress and its impact on infants and young children

Marcy Sayfer: We know that when there is toxic stress or when there’s so much stress in a young child’s life that they’re not able to cope, then their stress response system is overburdened. And it leads to children having trouble attending, trouble sitting still, sleeping and generally coping. And so I think the place that it comes in is we want quality early childhood education, but we want our children to be able to be ready to sit in that classroom and be able to take in all the exciting things that are there for them to learn. So when they’re coming from a community or a household where there are an over abundance of, you know, stresses and they’re not able to cope, their stress response system is overburdened. It’s on hyper-arousal and children are not able to regulate and settle in later in life.

On the barriers to high-quality education and health resources

Marciela Garcia: Many of the children coming from low income families enter school with a deficit of about a million words that they didn’t hear before age 5. (That’s) when the brain develops the fastest. Eighty-five percent of our brain development happens during that period, so it’s a critical period for learning. So when children are not enrolled in high-quality education, they enter school with a deficit.

Jenn White: And why has there been such a lack of access to high-quality child early childhood education on the South and Southwest sides?

Garcia: I think that is a lack of political will because the research points out the great need for investment in that area, but hardly anyone hasn’t made it part of their political agenda that to say “we’re going to invest in this community.”

On what lawmakers can do on a policy level to address this issue

Sayfer: Recognition. We have the science that tells us that intervening early is cost-effective and makes a difference for families and society. So I think always what I would like to see is a bigger commitment.

Main: We have a rampant crisis situation within early childhood right now related to the compensation of what people are actually paid to do this highly sophisticated, complex, important work that literally lays the foundation for children’s development and learning. And so I would like to see a real commitment to funding it. I’d also like to see a real commitment to policymakers actually understanding and believing the science behind early childhood care and education, and that its not necessarily something that’s viewed as just taking care of kids babysitting for kids and making sure that parents can go to work. It’s much more sophisticated and complex than that. Our very youngest children often are the (ones) who are served by our least qualified people. We need to reverse that, because that's really where the most important work is being done.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.

GUESTS: Catherine Main, senior lecturer and program coordinator in the College of Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago

Marcy Sayfer, director of the Center for Children and Families at the Erikson Institute

Maricela Garcia, executive director of Gads Hill Center

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