The Real Cliff in the United States: Why America Needs to Focus on Childhood for Long Term Prosperity

Two events that took place in Washington yesterday focused on the real cliff our country faces -- the childhood cliff. This is where we should be placing our shared focus.
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While the 'fiscal cliff' is absorbing our national focus, the cliff that is truly dire is the one we push kids off of every day. Two events that took place in Washington yesterday focused on the real cliff our country faces -- the childhood cliff. This is where we should be placing our shared focus.

At one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Civil Rights took a hard look at school discipline policies and investigated how extreme rules using suspensions push students away from school and toward a life of crime. At the other end of the street, the Attorney General's Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence released the findings of a year-long study, reporting on the latest research about the impact of trauma on children's lives.

Taken together, the two issues sound an alarm for the ways our schools and neighborhoods push kids away from the things we all want and deserve -- a good education, a safe neighborhood, and a chance at the American Dream. While all this may seem less immediate than the fiscal cliff, it is every bit as urgent.

Childhood exposure to violence is a national epidemic. Every year, two out of every three of our children -- 46 million -- can expect to have their lives touched by violence, crime, abuse, and psychological trauma this year. It's not hard to figure out the negative effects on society. The Task Force on Children's Exposure to Violence describes something we all intuitively know: that witnessing traumatic events disrupts our ability to function in a healthy way, make good decisions, and move forward in our lives. For kids, the impact of trauma is even more pronounced.

Children exposed to violence are less able to concentrate in class. Their brains are consumed with processing the toxic stress in their lives and are not free to process the important things of childhood, like academic learning and developing critical interpersonal and life management skills.

Unfortunately it is often these very kids who have trouble sitting still in school and listening to the teacher. While they are the ones who most need help, we now have a system of suspending children who misbehave and removing them from school, the place they belong. Suspensions as a tool for behavior management have reached epidemic levels - in California alone, over 400,000 students are suspended from school every year. That's more kids each year than we graduate from high school!

The problem with suspensions is that they don't address the underlying behavior. Instead, they put the child back on the street without any reason to expect that behavior will be different when and if they return to school. Suspension becomes a risk factor itself -- students suspended three or more times by the end of their sophomore year are five times more likely to drop out than students who have not been suspended, and each suspension increases the risk of involvement with the justice system by three times.

The great news is that these issues are fixable -- positive school discipline tools keep kids accountable for their behavior while teaching them better ways to handle their feelings. The research on early prevention is particularly heartening: for a one-time investment of $500 per child, we can reduce behavior problems, teen pregnancy, drop out, and drug and alcohol abuse all the way into adulthood. Even better, we can "inoculate" kids against the trauma and toxic stress in their lives. When we provide social-emotional tools to kids, they are buffered against the other stresses in life, even if all those stresses don't go away.

That's why I want to thank the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the Attorney General's Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence for seeking to protect childhood. We at the California Endowment are eager to help. Recently, we announced the creation of a $1 million fund to help local districts transform their school discipline policies. And next year, we will unveil a major new program to encourage our schools and neighborhoods to recognize the signs of exposure to violence, and to address them through proven, affordable practices. It's all part of the California Endowment's "Health Happens Here" campaign, an effort to challenge people to think about health as something beyond just a visit to the doctor's office, and instead, to think about health where it really happens, in neighborhoods, schools and with prevention.

It doesn't take a fiscal analysis to grasp that failing to attend to emotional and social health needs of our kids and allowing them to fail the systems we established to ensure America's future means we aren't going to much like the future we get.

If we are ever to permanently balance our budget, it will be through attending to our future. This is a moral necessity for Americans, and also something that we should do out of sheer self-interest. We need to equip our young people to be able to steer this country toward a prosperous future. Let's re-double our efforts to eliminate what truly threatens our future -- the 'childhood cliff.'

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