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Over the past 18 months, the bond between early childhood educators and the communities they serve has been a lifeline, especially for families. Now, Congressional leaders and the Biden administration must determine the final shape of the Build Back Better plan, an ambitious social policy agenda designed to support families, educators, and the economy for years to come.
Thanks to our work at Saul Zaentz Preschool Education Initiative, we heard from thousands of early childhood educators and families with young children, many of whom will benefit from these historic investments.
In conversations and survey responses, collected largely through the Harvard Early Learning Study (ELS @ H), a large-scale study of early learning and care, two messages have come out loud and clear: The past 18 months have been filled with disruption, uncertainty and stress, of course. But they also offer key lessons in resilience – and a strong case for making bold investments that fund early childhood education and care as critical public infrastructure.
In our first investigations into the pandemic, in spring 2020, families worried about the effects of the crisis on their physical, mental and financial well-being. In fall 2020 and early 2021, the same parents worried about how the pandemic would affect their children’s academic and socio-emotional skills. More than half of early childhood educators working with 3- and 4-year-olds reported changes in children’s behavior, mostly negative.
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At the same time, we saw sources of hope and resilience, including the power of strong relationships between families and educators. After the closure of many preschool education programs and schools at the start of the pandemic, almost all parents said they keep in touch with their children’s teachers and schools. Most educators, also claimed to have provided some form of online instruction and communication via email, phone and SMS. We have often heard of educators bringing learning materials and even food to families’ homes. As the pandemic progressed, most parents said educators and schools played a central role in supporting their families.
Educators continued to do this essential work despite the difficult conditions that prevailed even before the pandemic, from inexcusably low salary disproportionate mental health problems the scarcity of high quality learning and professional networks. The public health emergency has exacerbated turnover and professional burnout; in recent months, many early childhood educators have had no choice but to leave the field, paving the way for a crisis in the availability, affordability and quality of child care services.
What do our findings mean for those charged with determining the future of the Build Back Better program? First, given that 75% of today’s parents with young children work, policymakers need to conceptualize and fund preschool education as the public good that it is. In the short term, this means investing strategically to expand access and affordability, support educators, and improve program quality – all steps included in the current version of the Build Back Better plan. In addition to hundreds of billions of dollars in investments in affordability and the provision of child care, the plan would increase educator salaries, a measure needed to improve quality and reduce turnover in the field.
These funds would help states build on existing efforts to improve compensation and retention. In Massachusetts, for example, the use of state and federal stabilization and recovery dollars was guided by a set of fundamental principles: state subsidies were to be paid to workers’ compensation under the form of salary increases or bonuses. In addition, federal child care stabilization funds are distributed according to a formula that rewards child care providers who invest in larger staff, which helps programs deliver better education and provide more flexible hours. longer and more flexible to meet the needs of families.
Policymakers also need to ensure that educators get the professional support they need. This includes regular opportunities to build their skills and make connections with networks and resources that promote mental health and well-being. In Massachusetts, new investments in educator compensation have been linked with a professional development overhaul, with a focus on expanding access to scholarships, coaching and mentoring.
Finally, policymakers can strengthen the positive impact of early childhood education and care on healthy child development by supporting other types of investments in overall family well-being. Parents and other family caregivers have been instrumental in helping children cope with more than a year of unprecedented disruption, stress and change that for many will have effects long after the pandemic is over. Policies that support strong families and healthy child development – and serve to augment and complement the effects of high-quality early education and care – include paid family leave and concrete financial assistance that helps caregivers meet their basic needs for food, shelter and health care. . Including these types of direct supports for families in the final version of the Build Back Better plan will produce better results for children and for society as a whole.
Those tasked with shaping the enduring Build Back Better program have an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen families, support educators, and put children on the path to healthy, developing lives. Better yet, these investments in caregivers and children are also investments in the health of the economy in general. When caregivers have the support they need to participate fully in work and community life, and when children grow up in an environment of responsive and nurturing relationships, everyone benefits, now and in the decades to come.
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