Infants and Toddlers Cannot Be Forgotten When Expanding Pre-K

Infant-toddler care continues to be among the most expensive types of child care for all families regardless of income. In the past few months, I've been talking with colleagues across the country trying to identify innovative practices and strategies focused on providing high quality care for infants and toddlers while keeping cost conscious. The Department of Health and Human Services recently announced a new $500 million funding opportunity for Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships. This opportunity will help expand access to high-quality, comprehensive services for low-income infants and toddlers and their families.

I am pleased to see infant and toddler care being given a high priority. In a vigorous debate with my colleagues at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), we argued the cost benefits of focusing on pre-K or the entire early childhood system. Lately, the discussion and advocacy around early childhood education has seemed to focus mostly on pre-K, and I have heard concerns that early childhood is becoming synonymous with pre-K. Although pre-K is of critical importance, our nation needs to develop a continuum of high quality services for children birth to 8 years of age so that all children and families can reach their full potential now and in the future. My colleagues agree, although we are at a loss of exactly how to make this happen. We hope that the partnership program will provide greater insight and some models for innovative practice.

Infant and toddler care is an important component in the education continuum because disparities between lower- and higher-income children start as early as nine months of age, with a distinct language gap seen as early as 18 months, according to recent research by Anne Fernald at Stanford University. This disparity, highlighted in Fernald's newer research, is being referred to as the "word gap." Children who grow up in low-income families develop smaller vocabularies than their higher income peers. This disadvantage leads to additional disparities in achievement and success over time, further illustrating the need for early investments in children and families.

The University of Chicago's Thirty Million Words Initiative, supported by WKKF, also provides these partnerships with evidence-based interventions that are proven to strengthen the early language environments of children in their care. And, a poll conducted by WKKF grantee First Five Years Fund (FFYF) found that American voters overwhelmingly support strengthening federal investments in early childhood education for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and pre-kindergartners - from birth to age 5. FFYF's survey indicated that early childhood education is a top priority for voters, second only to increasing jobs and economic growth, which the foundation is focused on as well.

Over and over again, we are coming to the same conclusion - early investments in children's education reap a harvest of benefits for years to come for the children, their families and their communities.