Early Care and Education (ECE) is the earliest stage of a child’s learning and development, taking place between birth and eight years old. Because a child’s brain is the most flexible and rapidly developing during the first five years of their life, ECE plays a critical role in building a strong foundation for children’s lifelong health, well-being, and success. Quality early learning experiences help nurture the holistic development of a child’s cognitive, social-emotional, language, and physical skills, serving as the building blocks for the rest of their lives.
Excitingly, the positive impact of ECE goes well beyond the classroom. Studies have shown that quality ECE yields greater returns on investment in education, health, social, and economic outcomes for our overall society.
“Early childhood education fosters cognitive skills along with attentiveness, motivation, self-control, and sociability—the character skills that turn knowledge into know-how and people into productive citizens.”-Dr. James Heckman, Nobel Prize winner and University of Chicago Economics Professor
Inspirational Moments: Impactful Experiences in the World of ECE
Fostering positive, meaningful relationships to improve the lives of children and families is always my favorite aspect of any role. As ECE Project Director, I feel grateful to work directly with children and ECE providers while leading initiatives with our state and local partners to transform wellness practices and policies to create healthier environments within ECE settings across Georgia. Some of the most impactful experiences in this role:
- Encouraging Our ECE Providers and Celebrating their Successes: At the end of the Reach for the Stars Learning Collaborative and Empowering Healthy Choices in Schools, Homes, and Communities program year, the HealthMPowers ECE team celebrates providers as they share their nutrition and physical activity accomplishments with fellow participants in the program. It is so inspiring to see all of the positive, meaningful changes our sites have made over the past school year. This culminating event is a powerful reminder of the meaningful impact HealthMPowers makes through the work we do with students, teachers, and staff each and every day.
- Having Fun with Our Students: I love interacting with children during model lesson visits at our ECE centers and family childcare homes. They always keep me on my toes, make me laugh, and are excited to learn and teach me something new. At the beginning of each model lesson, I often ask the students why it is important to engage in healthy eating and/or physical activity. When children respond that healthy eating and physical activity help make them strong, I model and encourage them to flex their muscles to show how strong they are. One time, when I asked a class to flex their muscles, one student looked at me casually against the wall. When I asked what was wrong, they responded, “I would flex, but I’m afraid I’m too strong and will rip my shirt off.” I burst into laughter – children bring me so much joy!
- Learning from Our Providers: The voices of our ECE providers influence and inform every aspect of our work from our resources to our programs and initiatives. We, as a team, are constantly collecting and using the feedback we receive from them to improve our programs and services. The daily conversations I have with providers, including their stories, have the greatest impact on the work I do in my current role. Their wisdom, insight, and lived experiences are invaluable to our work.
Shaping Tomorrow: Envisioning the Future of ECE
I believe we, as a society, have a unique opportunity and imperative to make greater public and private investments and policies to establish a childcare system that benefits ECE providers and the children and families they serve. In doing so, we can ensure that quality ECE is accessible and affordable to all families through childcare benefits while preparing, supporting, and compensating providers for the critical work they do teaching and caring for our youngest learners each and every day.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated the economic, educational, and health inequities within our country, including those within the ECE workforce. Due to COVID-19, many ECE centers and family childcare homes have struggled to stay open with many providers quitting and leaving the field altogether. Due to a lack of affordable, reliable childcare, many parents and caregivers have been forced to leave their jobs, causing a labor shortage and detrimentally affecting our broader economy.
Despite the vital role they play within society, ECE providers – nearly all of whom are women – have been historically and pervasively underpaid and undermined with the pandemic only heightening these inequalities. According to the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE), “…nearly all early educators face severe pay penalties for working with younger children in all states, with poverty rates an average of 7.7 times higher than teachers in the K-8 system. While wages paid to early educators overall are low, additional disparities within the workforce itself cause greater harm to certain populations,” and have been especially detrimental to Black, Latina, and immigrant women.
Over the past three years, we have seen how essential the ECE workforce is to the broader workforce. Now is the time to take intentional steps toward creating and reforming systems and policies to benefit our providers, our families, and ultimately our economy. As said by University of Michigan economist Betsey Stevenson, “The decisions we make about the availability of child care today will shape the U.S. macro-economy for decades to come by influencing who returns to work, what types of jobs parents take, and the career path they are able to follow.”
Triumph and Transformation: Reflecting on the Success of the Learning Collaborative
I am both grateful and elated to be a part of the Learning Collaborative and its success! As a preeminent state leader in child health, HealthMPowers has established Reach for the Stars Learning Collaborative as a proof of concept for our statewide nutrition and physical activity assessment and recognition system, which has been supported by the Georgia Departments of Public Health (DPH) and Early Care and Learning (DECAL) among other partners.
The success of this initiative would not be possible without the extraordinary vision and leadership of Jennifer L. Owens, President and CEO of HealthMPowers, and Christi Kay, former President and CEO of HealthMPowers; the entire ECE and technology teams; and our strong partnerships with governmental agencies, universities, advocacy groups, professional associations and coalitions, providers, and other nonprofit organizations. Due to their incredible work, we are working together to improve the quality of ECE by creating healthier learning environments for Georgia’s youngest children, families, and staff.