Your View: The Biggest Little Change We Can Make

Editor’s note: This post was written by Pulptown reader Madeleine K. Thakur.

Your View is a recurring series of opinion pieces from members of the Pulptown community. To share your ideas, goals, and work about Orlando with the community in a Your View piece, please submit it to [email protected].

There is a crisis unfolding in kindergarten classrooms across Orlando and throughout Florida. In 2018, more than 12,000 children in Orange County entered a kindergarten classroom for the first time. More than 5,000 of those children were not ready to be there.

When nearly 50 percent of children are already behind when they begin school, we are failing our society and asking miracles of our teachers. 

We know that when kids start behind, they are less likely to catch up and learn to read by third grade. Low reading scores are known to contribute to lower levels of high school completion, which in turn leads to a lower likelihood of owning a home, holding a steady job, and staying out of jail.  

What Is Kindergarten Readiness?

So what does it mean to be ready for kindergarten? For our 5-year-olds, social-emotional skills are far more important than mastering letters, numbers and shapes. Children who are “ready” can listen, communicate and cooperate. They can hold a pencil and focus on a task. They have a foundation for critical thinking and curiosity, and they have an eagerness to learn. 

These life skills, when properly developed in early education settings, become the soft skills business leaders look for when they are hiring. We often speak of a workforce crisis today, and we look to higher education to solve our problems. But what if we started earlier? Business leaders know that improving inputs is cheaper than fixing something at the end of the production line, so why haven’t we applied this solution to our education system?

There is even research to prove it. In 2009, Economist James Heckman found that investments in high-quality early education resulted in later returns to society of up to $9.20 for every $1 invested. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child reports these returns take “the form of reduced special education, welfare, and crime costs, and increased tax revenues from program participants later in life.”

Investing in kindergarten readiness is a down payment for our K-12 system and for the health and resilience of our communities. Twenty years on, we’ll get higher earners, more innovative employees and more thoughtful citizens. According to the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation, graduates of high-quality early learning centers are 23% more employable than those who did not have access to high-quality centers.

There is a lot we can do in Orange County to help prepare our children for kindergarten. And it’s not just up to parents and teachers to make this happen. It’s on all of us. Luckily, together, if we all commit to a few small changes, we can make a huge impact for our children and for our future.

The Big Little Changes We Can Make 

The Children’s Movement of Florida has been working to improve kindergarten readiness for the past decade, and we see three simple ingredients as the keys to getting it right: health, learning and love. This issue is societal, spanning industries and zip codes, and its solutions are societal as well. 

  • Health: All children should have health insurance and a relationship with a pediatrician so they receive preventive care and developmental screenings starting at birth. The earlier we can help children with learning challenges or developmental delays, the easier it will be for them to prepare for kindergarten. When children are healthy, they are ready to learn. 
  • Learning: Working families should have access to affordable, educational childcare with age-appropriate standards of excellence. We know that babies and young children develop best in stimulating environments, through exploration, play, and a strong bond with their caregiver. The work that early-learning teachers do to create these environments is specialized, and we should train them and pay them accordingly. 
  • Love: As a society, we should endeavor to create family-friendly environments wherever we can. Young children thrive on nurturing relationships — smiles, hugs and responsive caregivers. When businesses are flexible and communities support parents, parents are able to fulfill their role as their child’s first teacher and buffer any early stresses before they become toxic. Supporting parents will support children, which benefits all of us.

Assessing Where We Are, Looking Forward 

In the past decade, Florida has shown a commitment to supporting efforts that help promote kindergarten readiness, but we still have a ways to go.

  • The number of uninsured children dropped from 734,000 in 2008 to 325,000 in 2017. Still, that is 325,000 children too many.
  • Florida has invested more than $9 billion in early-learning programs and set standards for high-quality childcare. Still, Florida ranks 42nd out of 50 states in per-pupil funding, allocating roughly half the national average of per-pupil funding to Pre-K programs.
  • Florida funded Help Me Grow (available by calling 211) to support parents and offer access to developmental screenings and early interventions. Today, it covers 74 percent of families in the state. We hope this resource will soon be available to 100 percent of Floridians.

We do have an exciting vote of support from Florida’s business community in forwarding the kindergarten readiness effort. The Florida Chamber of Commerce has embraced the fact that a strong foundation for our children is key to ensuring our future prosperity. The Chamber has committed to bringing Florida’s kindergarten readiness rate to 100 percent by 2030, and The Children’s Movement of Florida is proud to collaborate on leading change around this goal.

We encourage you to join us in our mission to have 100% of children ready for kindergarten by 2030. We have ten years to make this a reality, but we have to start now. 

Together, we can make small changes. Together, we can have a big impact for generations to come. 

What You Can Do Today 

Whether you are a member of the community, a business leader, or a policymaker, here are a few things you can do to make a big little change today:

Community Members

  • Spread the message that learning begins at birth – talk to your baby even before they can talk back.
  • Stop using the word “daycare.” “Childcare” will do. This work helps build children’s brains and is specialized for teachers.
  • Let your policymakers know this issue matters to you. 
  • The Harvard Center on the Developing Child has excellent resources on how we can help children develop their executive functioning skills and the U.S. Department of Education offers excellent resources on how we can help children build their social-emotional skills. You can start at home today!

Business Leaders

  • Create a family-friendly culture with flexibility to take children for pediatric appointments.
  • Share resources with all employees who are new or expectant parents.
  • Sponsor a parent resource and health screening fair.
  • Offer paid parental leave and childcare subsidies for mothers and fathers

Policymakers

  • Celebrate and support early learning teachers.
  • Continue to invest in high-quality, educational childcare for working families.
  • Increase investment in VPK.
  • Expand Help Me Grow, a parent resource to identify behavioral or developmental concerns and seek early intervention before children enter school.

Visit www.childrensmovementflorida.org/kindergarten-readiness-in-florida/  to learn more and get involved to help get 100% of children ready for kindergarten by 2030.

Madeleine K. Thakur is chief of staff at The Children’s Movement of Florida, a nonprofit that advocates for a strong start for all children in the state.