Vulnerable children and their families are best served when social services, child-care providers and psychologists work together to design and implement interventions, according to psychologists who spoke at APA's Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., Aug. 48.
In a symposium on "Strengths-based research and policy--investing in children, youth, families and communities," Jane Knitzer, EdD, deputy director of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, and Ruby Takanishi, PhD, director of the Foundation for Child Development, encouraged psychologists to take a more active role in early childhood education issues.
The task, said Knitzer, is figuring out how to synthesize multiple streams of psychological research and integrate that research so that policy-makers will understand the importance of early childhood education.
Currently, there are basic inequities in access to and participation in preschool programs, said Takanishi. While children from poor or wealthy families have access to preschool programs, families above the poverty line but beneath the median income level are the least likely to enroll children. Such inequities make a difference in a child's ability to learn once they enter school.
How can the playing field be leveled? Knitzer pointed to Educate America, a piece of legislation she called an important opportunity because it proposes that "every child shall enter school ready to learn."
"That is entitlement language," Knitzer said. "Every child...Therein is an opportunity and an enormous challenge for us."
The difficulty with policies like Educate America is that while they use such promising language, policy-makers have "basically wiped out entitlements for children's survival," said Takanishi.
Aligning policy development with language that would promise every child services is no easy task for advocates and policy-makers. Knitzer and Takanishi both stressed that young children's care is already underfunded and that allocated resources tend to target only the most vulnerable children.
And there are obstacles to implementing policy. For example, a host of support systems, such as adult mental health, substance abuse treatment and domestic violence programs, address individual adult risk factors but seldom look at the impact on young children or at strengthening parenting practices of high-risk adults.
"What we need to do is work to create policies and incentives to cross system boundaries," Knitzer said, because these parties seldom converse with each other, even though children and families would better benefit from seamless, systemic support.
So what is the first step in providing wrap-around services for all children?
"All early education and care programs should be publicly supported and universally available to all families who desire them, regardless of family income and the work status of parents," Takanishi said.
We should begin by providing quality services to all children, she explained, so that psychologists and care providers can identify vulnerable families and children and implement a strategy to provide them with additional resources. Takanishi also proposed to restructure federal and state funding programs (there are at least 69 such programs) for early childhood education into one block grant.
"All programs--public schools, nonprofit, for-profit centers, religious and secular schools--should be able to access the funds if they adhere to specific operating principles and if there is a system of monitoring and accountability," she said.
In addition to child and family interventions, Knitzer and Takanishi want policy-makers to push for better education and training for child-care workers. Minimum education requirements, similar to the K12 system, would not only lead to better pay for low-salaried child-care workers, but also make them capable of identifying and working with vulnerable children.
It is important, said Knitzer, that psychologists pay attention to how they can interject their knowledge into the discourse on early childhood in a way that enriches the framework of parents, policy-makers and care-givers.
For example, psychologists can show policy-makers that cultural differences should not be stereotyped as risk factors, but as strengths. Knitzer recounted a study that reported children whose mothers have low education were less likely to do well in school. However, the study also pointed out that a certain percentage of these children were reading in the first quartile.
"We don't do that very much in our analysis," Knitzer said. "That's very important for policy-makers to hear."