Children in Miami-Dade County are heading back to school on Monday. More more than 23,000 of them are entering a kindergarten classroom for the first time. If statewide trends hold true, almost 11,000 of those children are 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.
For the past decade, The Children’s Movement of Florida has been focused on promoting school readiness because we know children need a strong start to thrive. In fact, research has shown that young children’s brains are built like a house: The neural connections that form in the first three years of life are the foundation of that house. If we wait until kindergarten to focus on learning, it’s like adding fine finishes on top of crumbling concrete.
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.
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.
To get children ready is not just about preschool; this is a societal issue. There are three simple ingredients to getting it right: health, learning and love.
Health: When children are healthy, they are ready to learn. All children should have health insurance and a relationship with a pediatrician so they receive recommended preventive care and developmental screenings starting at birth.
Learning: Babies and young children develop best in stimulating environments, through exploration and play. Early-learning teachers are specialists, not babysitters, and we should train them and pay them accordingly. Working families should have access to affordable, educational childcare with age-appropriate standards of excellence.
Love: Young children thrive on nurturing relationships — smiles, hugs and responsive caregivers. We should celebrate family-friendly businesses that allow parents to be present as their child’s first teacher and to buffer any early stresses before they become toxic.
We have made progress in Florida in the past decade. The number of uninsured children dropped from 734,000 in 2008 to 325,000 in 2017 — the latest year for which we have data. Florida has invested more than $9 billion in early-learning programs and set standards for childcare to offer brain-building stimulation and nurturing. We created a 24-hour parent resource system, Help Me Grow (available by calling 211), that has increased access to developmental screenings and early intervention. Today, it covers 74 percent of families in the state.
Another encouraging sign: The Florida Chamber of Commerce has embraced the fact that a strong foundation for our children is key to ensuring our future prosperity. Getting 100 percent of children ready for kindergarten is an important goal for the Chamber’s 2030 strategy, and The Movement is proud to collaborate in uniting communities, business leaders and policy makers around this goal.
Any impact on the statewide level will be the result of changes at the community level, made by leaders and employers who understand the importance of the early years.
Every child is born with potential, and it’s up to all of us to give them the opportunity to maximize it. Join us to make sure all children are ready to learn and prosper when they meet their kindergarten teacher.
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.