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Why We Do It: Brain Development

Long before children step foot into kindergarten, their brains are building and growing through warm and responsive relationships and early childhood experiences. Learning begins early, even before birth. The brain development that takes place during the earliest days, months, and years of a child’s life is stimulated and enhanced through language interaction and engagement with caring adults (i.e., talking, reading and singing).

The first thousand days of a baby’s life are likely to set the foundation for the physical and emotional health for the rest of her life. The brain develops at an incredible speed — 700 new neural connections are formed every minute in the time between birth and six months. Experience matters when it comes to neural connections – those that are reinforced by experiences are strengthened and those which are not are eliminated. Children exposed to challenging, yet achievable experiences in the context of loving relationships are more likely to develop strong social-emotional and higher order thinking skills; children exposed to chronic stress and neglect are instead more likely to strengthen neural connections to react to stressors..

Occasional stress is a normal part of life. Children experiencing stress count on adults in their life to help calm them: for example, an anxious child cries and a parent soothes and feeds him. However, when stress occurs regularly and without adult intervention, it can interfere with brain development. When a person experiences stress, a range of physiological reactions occur to be ready to cope with the stressor. When these reactions remain at a heightened state for prolonged periods of time without supportive relationships to intervene, it is called toxic stress. Toxic stress is found to impair the development of neural connects, particularly in the areas of cognitive development. In fact, a single, stable and supportive relationship can help children develop resilience to cope with adversity and stress and build the vital neural connections required for healthy social-emotional and cognitive development.

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Why We Do It: Opportunity and Achievement Gap

Each year, over half a million babies are born in California. With approximately three million children ages 0 to 5, California has more children in this age span than any other state.1 California also has the highest number of children in the U.S. living in poverty, contributing to a great number of families with limited access to the resources necessary to help their children grow up healthy and ready to succeed. Poverty and other factors, such as parental stress and household instability can lead to opportunity gaps, which show up as early as 18 months of age and widen throughout early childhood.

Gaps in both services and opportunities for low-income children and children of color remain significant in the earliest years, despite investments under Proposition 10. It is critical for California to address existing gaps, starting with educating families and then by providing high-quality services and programs that support the development of all young children in the state.

Although profound gaps exist for many of California’s children, a robust body of research demonstrates high-quality early learning programs and early childhood services can improve their health, social-emotional, and cognitive outcomes. A strong start that includes engaged parents and effective early learning can help close the wide school readiness gap that exists between children with high needs and their peers at kindergarten entry, thus reducing the achievement gap.

Research shows effective early learning programs, when combined with access to health care and preventive services, can prepare children for success in school. Even though research strongly indicates early learning programs are one of the best investments a society can make, access to effective early childhood programs remains a challenge for most California families.

Since the passage of Proposition 10 in 1999, the state Commission, First 5 counties, and other partners, and have adopted numerous strategies and funded many services that research indicates are the most successful approaches to address health disparities and the school readiness gap for all Californian children.

The majority of F5CA investments are universally available and broadly targeted programs, services, and messaging such as Talk. Read. Sing.®, support for high quality early childhood education, and our state and federal advocacy efforts. In each case, F5CA efforts take a systemic approach that are intended to serve a primarily low-income population through universal influencers and programs.

Another F5CA investment, First 5 IMPACT, supports a network of local quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) statewide to improve the quality of all early learning settings with a first priority for targeting programs serving children with high needs — from alternative settings and family, friend, and neighbor care to family child care homes, centers, and preschools.


1 State of California, Department of Finance, Report P-3: State and County Population Projections by Race/Ethnicity, Detailed Age, and Gender, 2010-2060. Sacramento, California, December 2014.
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Why We Do It: Dual Language Learners

Early childhood is an important time to support children's dual language development. In California, 60 percent of children birth through age five live in a household speaking another language or English and another language. The dual language learner population is the fastest-growing demographic in our state.

Being bilingual is an asset that should be valued, and research shows supporting bilingualism from early ages can have wide ranging benefits, from cognitive and social advantages early in life, to long-term employment opportunities, competitiveness in the workplace, and cultural and academic benefits.

The brain is primed and wired to learn language in the first few years of life. As we age, it becomes harder to learn a second language. Learning more than one language at the same time does not confuse young children; rather, the human brain is capable of learning multiple languages at a very young age. In fact, this learning is often easiest at young ages, under the right conditions.

California is well poised to develop and cultivate bi- and multilingualism by supporting young DLLs. Through investment in a DLL Pilot, First 5 California has the opportunity to identify effective teaching strategies that support dual language development across early learning settings, engaging families to support their children’s home language development, and delivering effective professional learning opportunities so early educators, caregivers, and program administrators can effectively support the learning and development of young DLLs.

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Why We Do It: Investing in the Future

The evidence is in: high-quality early childhood benefits children of all social and economic groups. Investing in early childhood benefits society both in the short and long term.

Children with high needs who participate in high-quality early learning benefit greatly, often exceeding national averages on measures of school readiness.  In fact, when controlling for risk factors such as maternal education, race, and parents’ ages, these gains persist. These children experience the benefits that result from early and effective instruction, which includes a focus on language and literacy, early math skills, and social-emotional competence. On the other hand, a child who is considered to have high needs and who does not receive quality early learning faces a life filled with disadvantages.

Research shows that effective early learning programs, when combined with access to healthcare and preventive services, can prepare children for success in school. In 2000, University of Chicago economist James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, analyzed the effects of early learning investments. He concluded that the younger the child is at the time of the intervention, the greater the payoff to the child's positive development and to the well-being of the larger society. Heckman found that early nurturing, positive learning experiences, and good physical health from ages 0 to 5 greatly impact future success. The returns to society include long-term outcomes such as, higher reading and math achievement, lower rates for special education, 44 percent lower grade retention rates, higher graduation rates by as much as 29 percent, increased 4-year college enrollment, higher earnings, and less welfare assistance.2

Longitudinal studies indicate that for every dollar invested in hiqh-quality early care and education saves taxpayers up to $13 in future costs. Further, the early childhood education industry is economically important both for those who work in it, employing nearly three million people nationwide, and as a viable option to help working parents fulfill their responsibilities. Where there is universally-available early childhood education, employers are able to attract and retain employees and increase productivity.

What we know is that estimated benefits to society from investing in quality early childhood education are large and go beyond the estimated increase in earnings for children as they become adults. Children who enter school at higher levels of readiness have higher earnings throughout their lives. They also are healthier and less likely to become involved with the criminal justice system. Lower crime translates into benefits to society from increased safety and security as well as lower costs to the criminal justice system and incarceration These positive spillovers suggest that investments in early childhood can benefit society as a whole.

2 Heckman, J., Grunewald, R. & Reynolds, A. (2006). The Dollars and Cents of Investing Early: Cost-Benefit Analysis in Early Care and Education. Zero to Three, 10-17.

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Why We Do It: Stronger Together

A strong and connected local and statewide early childhood system is imperative. The early childhood system includes comprehensive services that promote children’s physical, developmental, and mental well-being; early learning and development settings that foster safe and enriching experiences; and supports to strengthen families, foster leadership, and enhance their capacity to support their child’s well-being.

To bring about lasting, population-level improvements for children facing adversity, all local and state agencies in California must energize a collective movement toward early childhood systems building. When leaders and change agents align their agendas, networks, and resources in support of a shared goal, they have the power to achieve larger and more sustainable breakthroughs for children and families. These breakthroughs include improving the healthy physical, social, and emotional development of children during infancy and early childhood and increasing access to needed high quality early childhood services at both the state and local levels, with the ultimate goal of eliminating disparities so all children thrive.

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