Apr 18, 2019

Leveling the Playing Field for Vermont's Young Children

Leveling the Playing Field for Vermont's Young Children

As an early childhood specialist, I see the urgent need to level the playing field for young children’s present and future success by making quality child care more affordable. Because the brain develops most rapidly before age 5, it’s the best window of opportunity for children to build strong learning foundations. Just as children need to be taught any other skills, they are prime to learn social skills. Actually, these are more important today in these early years because, with the teaching-to-the-test focus our children unfortunately are exposed to from kindergarten up, elementary school teachers simply have no time to teach negotiation and social skills anymore.

In my 4-year-old classroom, daily teaching of social skills included modeling alternatives to snatching toys from other children on the playground. One morning, I saw Holly reach for one of Peter’s favorite trucks. As an overindulged single child who expected to get what she wanted, Holly’s teachable moments happened when someone challenged her. Peter, the son of an abusive father and the youngest of four boys who were well-known bullies, had learned that “might made right.”

Peter’s radar went on alert. Uh-oh. As we had previously practiced, I asked to hold the truck, which Holly gave me, while each child doggedly claimed ownership of it. I asked Holly to tell Peter her ideas about the truck, then asked Peter to tell Holly what he heard her say, and asked Holly if he heard it right. Next, Peter did the same. Holly announced she had it first; Peter repeated it correctly. Peter counter-claimed it was his truck and Holly repeated it; this sequence happened three times. Then, Peter stepped forward, looked at Holly straight in the eye and said, “You said no and I’m listening.” Holly answered that she would tell him when she was done with it.

“You said no and I’m listening.” What’s particularly remarkable is that I never taught that phrase; it was Peter’s own words. It certainly was nothing he’d heard at home because “no” didn’t work with his brothers or his parents. But Peter heard the central message and got it. He got it.

For Peter and Holly, the playing field was being leveled as they learned to construct skills in compassion and understanding. We need teachers who are trained to teach socially and emotionally healthy behavior. We need children who are thoughtful, communicative and caring. Of course, some learn it at home. But, for children who don’t, what chance do they have? Where else would Holly learn to negotiate and communicate reciprocally, leading to engaging, caring attachments? As for Peter, will a deepening internalization of these skills result in a boy who is not a bully? Not an abuser? Isn’t it worth the investment to offer the Hollys and Peters of Vermont these opportunities, to level the playing field for them?

In 70% of Vermont families with children under age 6, the parents work. But almost half of Vermont infants and toddlers likely to need child care don’t have access to regulated programs and nearly 80% don’t have access to affordable high-quality programs in safe, stimulating environments. Considering the opioid epidemic and other stresses facing Vermont families, many of our kids are exposed to inappropriate and unhealthy behaviors at home, with no options. Even with help from Vermont’s Child Care Financial Assistance Program (CCFAP), parents spend more than 40% of their household income on child care. Critically underfunded for years, CCFAP is facing a $9.2 million funding gap. Please ask your legislators to support increased investments in CCFAP. Use Let's Grow Kids' Legislator Dashboard to find their contact information.

As the old proverb says, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” Let’s level the playing field. Let’s lead the nation by showing what it looks like when a state cares about and invests in its future leaders.

Carol Stone

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