Here’s why Florida’s conversation on early learning should focus on brain building, not babysitting

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We often think of early education as babysitting. So long as the daycare is safe, we assume our children are on the right track. But with what we now know about early brain development, we need to start seeing the work of early learning centers for what they really are—brain building.  

Last week, The Children’s Movement of Florida released a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis signed by more than 100 Florida Mayors. The letter asked Governor DeSantis to prioritize the years from zero to five as he sets his action agenda for Florida.

The mayors note “the basic structure of the human brain is constructed in the first three years of a child’s life.” According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, “in the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second.” These kinds of connections are formed every time a child interacts with his or her environment and the adults in his or her life. The early years are a valuable and significant time because these connections form the brain’s foundation. It is easier and more effective to get things right the first time than return later to strengthen or shore up preventable damage to a child’s developmental process.

“My wife has been a VPK teacher for over 20 years and I have personally seen the benefits early education has for the students she has impacted in her tenure,” said Ben Malik, Mayor of Cocoa Beach, and one of the 100 mayors. 

These early experiences and environments are also significant because they have a long-lasting effect on children’s later success in school. Believe it or not, vocabulary differences are already observable between children at 18 months. Early childhood experts know we can eliminate these disparities by offering all children access to high-quality early education.

City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez was one of the mayors who signed the letter to Governor DeSantis. “I want to see a greater percentage of high school students in Miami graduating on time and ready to train for high-paying jobs or to pursue a college education. I know that track starts with the early years,” he said.

The mayors’ support of this issue “is not an unselfish act. We are acting in our own best interests, and the best interests of our cities, by valuing investment in children five and under. If we do not invest in children today, we will pay tenfold in the future.”

And it turns out this is true. 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.”

The important social-emotional skills that help children focus, work in groups, and regulate their emotions, skills that help them succeed later in the workforce, are also built in these early years  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.

If you’re wondering how you can make a difference, here are three things you can do today:

  • Educate yourself and share what you know.
    • No Small Matter is releasing a wonderful documentary about the importance of early childhood later this year. Gather some friends or coworkers together for a screening and discussion.
    • As we head into Florida’s 2019 Legislative session, sign on to the movement’s newsletter to stay informed about bills related to early childhood.

It is significant that more than 100 Florida mayors have signed this letter, and especially great that we had a total of 16 Miami-Dade mayors and 17 Broward mayors signed on. No matter their political affiliation, each of these mayors can agree this is the smartest way forward for Florida if we want to do right by our children and families and secure a prosperous future for the state.

Visit www.childrensmovementflorida.org/100-mayors to learn more.

This post has been updated.