Early Education Can Bring Back The Best Of Ourselves

It’s always a thrill for this former inner city teacher to attend early education conferences. Conversations with early educators bring back memories of the values that inspired me as a young student, and the priciples we in public education celebrated when I entered the classroom.

As usual, the Potts Family Foundation Oklahoma Early Childhood Coalition Business Summit achieved a balance between science-driven, businesslike analyses along with a loving commitment to our children.

The keynote speaker, the University of Wisconsin’s Dipesh Navsaria, explains, “If you don't invest in the early brain you are saying you don't think your society has a future.” He also counters one of the saddest misreadings of what it takes for kids to prosper in the 21st century. Our children, says Navsari, “need laps, not apps.”

Too often, parents and professionals fear that their children will be left behind if we don’t artificially speed up the learning process, but the path to success is still based on basic and loving human values. Our kids need the Five R’s: Routines, Reading together, Rhyming, Rewards, and Relationships.

Above all, “Every child needs an adult who is crazy about him.

Navsaria explains that we all have two types of brain plasticity, synaptic plasticity which operates throughout our lifetimes and cellular plasticity which occurs until age 5. That is why the key to closing the achievement gap is the first 1000 days of a child’s life.

To achieve educational (and thus economic equity) we must acknowledge that Oklahoma is tied for first in the nation in terms of children who have survived multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). We must face the fact that lead is neurotoxic, and poverty is also. We all face stress, but there is a difference between tolerable and toxic stress. To keep stress from becoming a continuing generator of cortisol, the poisonous stress chemical, adults must make sure that all children receive the nurturing that it takes to help make them resilient.

Navsaria understands that special education conditions, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD,) are real but he asks whether ADHD can also be a manifestation of adversity. He also suggests ways that play can build children who can regulate their cortisol and, sadly, these patterns are also linked to poverty. Non-poor parents are more likely to engage with their children through “scaffolding play,” which gives children the space to figure things out on their own. Poor kids are more likely to participate in “authoritarian play,” where adults step in and tell the kids the answers they should reach.

And that brings us to the question of public education which has often stripped play and discovery from classrooms. Medical professionals understand that their efforts contribute to about 20% of health outcomes. In-school factors account for about the same percentage of a student’s learning. In the age of school reform, however, educators are pressured to single-handedly hurry up the learning process, and in doing so they undermine the love of learning.

All of the conference’s contributors were great, but I was especially intrigued by the Monica Barczak’s presentation on Tulsa’s “Two Gen” effort. Working with whole families in order to overcome the legacies of generational poverty and trauma would seem to be common sense but Barczak says, “it’s not commonly done.” Even when we take a whole family approach, too often, we serve one generation and give referrals to the other. When the Tulsa CAP committed to serving children and adults in whole families, it produced impressive successes.

Barczak recommends that we extend the existing Oklahoma Promise program which serves young, aspiring college students to adults. She also urges Oklahoma to follow Utah, Maryland, and Connecticut and establish a Two-Gen commission on funding and social services.

Oklahoma State’s Amanda Morris and Lana Beasley remind us that 45% of Oklahoma children have survived three or more ACEs. We must work with families and help them with the ultimate solution, unconditional love that also comes with rules. They call for universal early education for kids on welfare but, at minimum, for all foster care kids.

Finally, Pat Potts draws upon an African proverb to articulate the key political fact that we must face: “Walking alone has narrow footprint; walking together leaves a broad path.”