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Why do the early years matter?

High-quality early childhood care and education are critical components of K-12 success, and research shows it can help close the achievement gap. By increasing access to high quality early childhood development experiences, we have the opportunity to ensure children are ready to learn and succeed in school, compete in the global economy and contribute to thriving communities.

Children from families experiencing risk factors such as poverty or low or no education are more likely to start school behind and stay behind, and are also the least likely to attend high-quality preschool programs, according to research by the RAND Corporation. As the graph below shows, children from low income families know fewer than one third as many words at age four as children from wealthier households.

As noted in a recent report from the Southern Regional Education Board’s Early Childhood Commission, “Young children’s brains develop rapidly in utero and in the first few months and years of life, when neural connections in the brain are made at an extraordinary rate. Researchers now know that early experiences shape the formation of pathways for brain functions, setting the foundation for all future learning. Although human intellect, behavior, and abilities continue to develop throughout life, the brain’s flexibility is greatest in the earliest years and decreases with age.”
In the first few years of life, 700 new neural connections are formed every second.  Circuits in the brain are formed or “wired” during this time frame and then stabilize as the child gets older.  If the brain circuits are not “wired” properly when they are first forming it is difficult to build on or change these circuits later.  This means that remedial education and other interventions are going to be much more expensive then providing the nurturing and enriching environment during the formative years. By enhancing early childhood development we actually improve a child’s ability to learn at later stages.

In 2011, Kentucky adopted and distributed a Kindergarten Readiness Definition to local communities, schools, state agencies and early childhood advocates. Promoted by the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood, the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), and the Division of Child Care (DCC) in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS), the definition provided the basis for selecting the kindergarten readiness screener. (Many thanks to Jefferson County Public Schools for sharing the graphic that has now been adopted statewide.)  But adopting and measuring kindergarten readiness doesn’t mean our focus begins at kindergarten. 
If whole communities of adults – families, caregivers, early childhood programs, libraries and school districts focus on birth to age five year olds to assure their readiness, we can dramatically boost our children’s chances for success.