Early education and childcare critical to improving child wellbeing

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Meriah E. Heredia-Griego, PhD

Early childhood care and education is central to any discussion about improving child wellbeing in New Mexico. Decades of research have shown that the early years of a child’s life are a special time when the brain is developing rapidly, and that providing enriching, stable environments for young children is one of the best investments a society can make. Supporting parents to help them be their children’s first teachers, ensuring all families have access to high-quality child care and pre-kindergarten experiences, and investing in strategies to improve the early school years are all ways New Mexico can support the wellbeing of its youngest children.

Though investing in early childhood is sound policy, accountability for early childhood investments is critical in this time of declining state resources and competing needs. Without solid data and accountability systems, it is challenging to know the reach and impact of state investments. The same research that has shown the value of early care and education has also often shown that program quality is essential, and that not every program aimed at young children is a success.

Fortunately, New Mexico has data and accountability information on a variety of systems supporting young children and their families. Home visiting, child care subsidies, PreK, and extended school year initiatives (such as K-3+) are attempts to create an effective system of care and education for our most vulnerable children.

Home visiting is a universal, in-home support program that provides parents and other caregivers guidance about how to support pre-literacy and basic needs of children. New Mexico has been a national leader in establishing ongoing analysis of home visiting outcomes, aided by a comprehensive, centralized data system. This reporting, now in its fourth year, shows a system that is screening families for risk and referring them to needed services such as counseling for post-partum depression. Challenges remain, however, such as how to support families when home visitors make referrals but families do not enroll in services, either because services are not available or because families are uncomfortable seeking help.

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Hailey Heinz

One of New Mexico’s largest early care and education systems is the child care assistance program, which provides subsidies for low-income families to access high-quality care. Reliable child care arrangements are essential for parents seeking to work or attend school, and investing in the quality of the child care system reaches tens of thousands of children across the income spectrum. This year, the first-ever annual report on the child care system will be available, examining data on access, affordability, and quality of child care in New Mexico.

New Mexico PreK, which began as a half-day program for 4-year-olds, has recently expanded to serve 3-year-olds and to be offered in some settings as a full-day program. PreK has been found to improve outcomes for children, including later test scores and reduced need for special education.

Early childhood education efforts continue into the early school years. The K-3+ program extends the school year, adding 25 additional days for kindergarten through third grade. The goal is to have more students prepared for and reading by third grade. K-3+ in New Mexico was evaluated recently through a randomized control trial, which found K-3+ was effective, but it was far more so when students had the same teacher for the 25 extra days that they had for the rest of the school year. This points to the need for debates to extend beyond whether to fund programs, and focus on how to fund high-quality implementation that gets the desired results.

None of these systems or programs can be effective if children do not show up to take advantage of them. Attempts to decrease truancy in the high school years often surface as a legislative issue, and we have an opportunity to reframe the conversation around prevention by building a culture of attendance during the preschool and early elementary years. Chronic absence, including suspensions, excused, and unexcused absences, can be an important indicator of when children and families are in need of support.

There is overwhelming agreement that quality early childhood care and education programs play a vital role in providing safe and educational environments for children. In many cases this agreement is based on data, and on emerging evidence that programs are getting results for children and families. Yet with difficult budget discussions ahead, New Mexico faces the ongoing challenge of how to meet the chronic need across our state and support the wellbeing of young children and their families.

Meriah E. Heredia-Griego, PhD, Director & Research Assistant Professor, and Hailey Heinz, Research Scientist 3, conduct education policy research at the University of New Mexico’s Center for Education Policy Research. The views in this column are the author’s alone and do not reflect the views or opinions of New Mexico In Depth. The column originally appeared in New Mexico In Depth’s 2017 Legislative Special Edition

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