The healthy child: assembly required | Kathleen Gallagher | TEDxUNC

Author: TEDx Talks

Translator: Silvia Rivera Reviewer: Denise RQ Good afternoon. When I was a senior in college, studying Early Childhood Education, I was a little worried about getting a job, and wondered if I should get licensed to teach older grades as well. But my adviser reassured me, she said: "Kathleen, any day now, there will be public early childhood programs everywhere." 30 years later, only a fraction of the children who need high quality early childhood programs have access to them, which is why I'm here to talk to you today. This is a story about the single most important construction a society ever undertakes. It is about what is required to build a physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally healthy child. It is a process, is complex, is the most challenging feat of engineering and a process that is easily thwarted by poverty and stress.

Healthy children do not come preassembled; work is required. This story begins with 100 North Carolina babies, and their amazing journey. Their life trajectories were changed by a single intervention, high-quality educational child care. They remained part of one of the largest studies of child development and one of the most famous, the Abecedarian project. And it started right here, in this town, at this university, at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. Abecedarian means ones who are just learning, and our abecedarians have been followed since the 1970s. Let me tell you how this worked. Children and families from Chapel Hill area, all of whom lived in poverty, were assigned to one of two experimental groups.

Both groups received basic supports such as diapers and formula, but only one of the groups, the Abecedarian group, received full day, year round; intensive child care. The researchers developed an innovative program. They developed a program that focused on playful activities that emphasized one-on-one intensive language interactions between teachers and children. The researchers, based on what we knew at the time, thought that they would see results quite quickly, and started assessing the children almost immediately, but it was over a year before they saw any results; at 15 months, there were slight differences between the Abecedarian childcare children and their none participating peers. But the amazing thing is what happened from the long-term results. First, there were some real disadvantages for children who did not participate in the Abecedarian childcare [program]. By four years old, they saw declines in their IQ, and in school, they were more likely to be placed in special education.

On the other hand, individuals who received the Abedecedarian childcare outperformed their non-participating peers on assessments of Math, Reading and intellectual measures through highschool and into early adulthood. Abecedarian participants were less likely to become teen parents. By 21 years of age, only 40% of the none participants have or enrolled in college or employed in skilled labor, compared to 70% of the Abecedarian children. Keep in mind, this is 16 years after participating in high-quality early childhood education.

The healthy child: assembly required | Kathleen Gallagher | TEDxUNC

They were less likely to become depressed as adults. By 30 years of age, they were more likely to have a job and a college degree, but the most impressive findings are the most recent: Abecedarian childcare participants in their mid-30s showed better physical health than their none participating peers. Let me give you and example. Among the males who did not participate in the Abecedarian childcare, 25% developed metabolic disorder. This is a serious medical condition consisting of hypertension and obesity. Guess how many of the Abecedarian males developed metabolic disorder? 25%, 10%, 5%? Zero. Not one of the Abecedarian males developed metabolic disorder in their mid-30s.

High-quality childcare received before five years old is associated with better heart health in mid-adulthood. Think about that for a moment. What made a difference for the Abecedarian children? How and why does high-quality early care in education have such a powerful and lasting impact? What is required for the assembly of a healthy child, who then becomes a healthy adult? Research as the FPG and elsewhere have been studying these questions for decades and identifying exactly what is needed for early care in education and the Abecedarian project provided a lot of that guidance. For example, we know the children need healthy environments. The Abecedarians project lent years of studies that examined specifically what constituted healthy environments for young children, tools were developed in FPG that are used around the world to evaluate and improve the quality of early childhood programs. But here is the thing: most children who live in poverty don't have access to those high quality early childhood programs.

Next, language. A great lesson from the Abecedarian program is the importance of intensive, frequent, one-on-one language interactions between adults and children. Later research shows that by the time children are four years old, children who live in poverty hear 30 million fewer words than children who live in economically privilege homes, 30 million fewer words. We continue to work, to try to help early childhood teachers enhance the quality of language development for young children. Finally, we've established that the glue that holds this assembly together is the warm, trusting relationships forged by the adults in children's lives. The Abecedarian children had access to these one-on-one interactions with teachers, and we know from subsequent research that when children have caring and trusting relationships with teachers in early childhood, they do better academically and socially throughout the school years. Healthy environments, language interactions, warm relationships, all rely on the skills of educated, healthy teachers. So who are these early childhood teachers? And what do we know about them? Let's take the example of Head Start teachers.

Head Start, you may know, is a federal funded program, designed to educate some children who live in poverty. According to a recent report on the early childhood workforce, Head Start teachers increased their education, consistently since 2007, while realizing a decline in wages in real dollars. Furthermore, we know from research that Head Start teachers report poor health outcomes than the general population, and they have very high stress in their jobs working with children and families; and we know that when teacher's stress increases the quality of their relationships with children declines. We are working very hard to identify ways to support teachers' well being so that they can support young children. High quality environments, language interactions, healthy relationships delivered by teachers who are educated, healthy, and well compensated. Sounds expensive, right? It is. (Laughter) But the Abecedarian study and other studies have found that there is a financial return on investment. According to Nobel Prize winner economist, James Hackman, participants in the Abecedarian study saved the societal support system as much as seven dollars for every dollar spent.

Seven dollars. And further evidence from economic researchers shows that investment in high quality early childhood programs, benefits not only children and families but entire communities, and could be the single intervention that thwarts the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Do you want to live in economically stable communities with low rates of poverty and crime? Invest in high quality early childhood programs. Do you want to spend less on public health problems like obesity and heart disease? Invest in high quality early childhood programs. Do you want your children to benefit from schools where all children are healthy and prepared to learn? Invest in high quality early childhood programs. These days, my office is to next to that of Francis Campbell, one of the original investigators on the Abecedarian study. But 30 years after my adviser reassured me, children who live in poverty still do not have access to sufficient high quality early childhood programs.

Our investment in human capital is the single most pressing issue we face today; and if healthier and more productive lives aren't sufficient, we have a financial bottom line that shows we must invest early. We have the instructions, assembly is required. What are we waiting for? Thank you. (Applause).

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