Deepening and Broadening the Foundation for Success: Information-Gathering Session Committee on the Science of Children Birth to Age 8

Comments Prepared for Public Information-Gathering Session
Committee on the Science of Children Birth to Age 8: Deepening and Broadening the Foundation for Success
Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academies
Board of Children, Youth, and Families
Lecture Room, National Academy of Sciences, 2101 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC
Friday, February 28, 2014

The committee is conducting a study and preparing a consensus report on how the science of children's health, learning and development can inform how we prepare a workforce to seamlessly support children from birth through age 8.  The purpose of this public session is for the committee to hear the experiences and perspectives of experts and relevant stakeholders to inform their deliberations.  Stakeholders are asked to respond to the question: From your perspective how can children be supported to move more seamlessly through the birth through age 8 continuum?

Good afternoon. My name is Grace Whitney.  I speak with you today as a developmental psychologist with over 40 years of experience in the field of early childhood.  Currently I am privileged to work closely with the federal Head Start program serving as director of the Head Start State Collaboration Office in Connecticut.  My experiences over the years have formed and solidified my perspective regarding how children can be supported to move more seamlessly through a birth to 8 continuum.  I will address what I believe are three key elements that must be considered in the discussion today.  I believe my comments will relate back to a topic raised by the first panel today of targeting multiple levels and working across disciplines when discussing professional development and the birth to age 8 workforce.

First, and from a true Head Start perspective, families must be supported and successfully engaged in any and all early childhood endeavors.  Families are the consistent thread throughout a child's life. When families are strong they can create and sustain a secure environment for growth, they are informed of what resources to access and what to expect from those resources, and they are their child's best and most enduring advocate to ensure continuity across components of any birth to 8 continuum.  Those in the workforce must be competent in connecting with families in the broadest sense, understanding what resources and supports families need, and respecting them as the lead partner for children’s life-long health, wellness and learning.

Second, engaging and supporting families must begin early.  The emerging infant mental health field aims to strengthen attachment and healthy relationships since relationships are the foundation for healthy development and learning.  Embedding infant mental health competencies (MI-AIMH, 2011) into professional development, and infant mental health resources into the service continuum, will enhance children's early social emotional development and promote healthy family relationships.  Additionally, an essential component of competence in infant mental health is the capacity for reflection upon one’s own role in creating authentic relationships with children and families.  It is within the context of healthy relationships that optimal learning happens for us all. 

Third and finally, any continuum must be responsive to the wide range of diversity - be it language, race, ethnicity, ability, economics, health or illness, opportunity, fortune, challenge or trauma - and to the most needy children, families, and communities.  In the US one has a higher likelihood of being homeless at the age of one than at any other age. (Shinn, 2014)  In a population study in Philadelphia homelessness during infancy was predictive of child welfare involvement and foster care in early childhood, and then failure upon entering school. (Perlman and Fantuzzo, 2010)  Any birth to age 8 continuum that systematically or even subtly creates barriers to access and continuous participation for children who experience homelessness, for example, or those children receiving child welfare services, or any child who needs individualized accommodations, is seriously flawed.  Raising the bar by enhancing the early childhood system only for those who get there leaves those who need it most, further behind.  Those who would otherwise be disenfranchised must be included by design.  Our workforce must embrace diversity and be competent in identifying, reaching out to, and engaging and sustaining relationships with children and families beset with diverse and often complicated needs.

To summarize, any seamless pathway will operate through those who successfully engage families, who begin early with a focus on attachment and healthy relationships, and who can be responsive to the vast diversity in our families and communities and to the most needy in our nation.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.

Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health. (2011, Revised). Competency Guidelines for Culturally Sensitive, Relationship-focused Practice Promoting Infant Mental Health. Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health, Southgate, MI.
Shinn, M. What Does Research Tell Us About Homelessness and Young Children? Roundtable presentation on Early Childhood Development and Education: Reaching Homeless Children, Urban Institute, Washington, DC, November 13, 2014.
Perlman, S. and Fantazzo, J. (2010). Timing and influence of early experiences of child maltreatment and homelessness on children's educational well-being.  Children and Youth Services Review 32 (2010) 874–883

Grace Whitney, PhD, MPA, IMH-E(IV), Director
Connecticut Head Start State Collaboration Office
Connecticut Office of Early Childhood
165 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, CT 06106
Phone: 860-713-6767