The First Lesson

The first lesson every baby should learn is that he or she matters. We feed hungry babies, rock fussy ones, return their smiles, keep them dry and clean. We show them that we care about what they need. This first lesson is the basis for much of what a baby will learn and become over a lifetime.

There is a groundswell of support for an increased commitment to early learning in this country. We hear that our economic competitors, China and India, are way ahead of us in this investment. We talk about the improvements in reading readiness, language acquisition and basic math skills that quality programs can bring. Studies show an increase in high school graduation rates among children in good birth-to-three programs, a milestone associated with a lifetime of better earning potential.

But I'd like to focus on that first lesson. Early Head Start, which serves low-income children up to age three, recognizes the importance of that first lesson, the importance of meeting basic needs. It is absurd to think about developing cognitive skills in a child who is sick or hungry.

So Early Head Start programs provide diapers. Many child-care programs require parents to purchase a supply of disposable diapers for their babies — a barrier than closes off early education to many. With Early Head Start, that barrier does not exist. Early Head Start serves up healthy snacks and meals during the day and does a nutritional analysis to make sure young children are getting an adequate diet at home. It also connects families to medical and dental care.

Less than half of American babies and toddlers are in early childhood programs, while nearly a quarter of the nation's children live in poverty. Kids from low-income families start school with many disadvantages that prefigure poorer outcomes throughout their educational careers. We need to have a single starting line for our kids, one that doesn't depend on family income. Early learning programs can help make that happen.

Proposals to expand Early Head Start make sense. Will they become a reality? It all comes down to that first lesson: that every baby matters. The next few months will demonstrate how well we adults remember that.