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Akst: The most critical years in life

Published: Friday, April 12, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

If you’re older than, say, 35, look at a recent photo of yourself. Now, compare that to a photo of you from eight years ago. What’s changed?

A few wrinkles, a few pounds, maybe some gray hair. You probably look more tired, but overall, not much has changed.

Now consider how much your life changed between birth and 8 years old.

That change is the reason behind a national celebration which begins next week.

“The Week of the Young Child,” sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, focuses public attention on young children (birth to 8), their families, and early childhood programs/services that meet those needs.

The event has been around for more than 40 years. This year’s theme is “Early years are learning years.”

Amy Lofthouse, preschool master teacher at Northern Illinois University’s Child Development Lab, is a friend and colleague. She told me about the cool stuff the Child Develoment Lab has planned for next week (call 815-753-1150 for more information):

• A kickoff “parade” of youngsters marching across NIU’s campus Monday morning

• Family night and art show Tuesday evening

• Book signing (a new work from a preschooler who has written six books) on Wednesday

• Dance party Thursday

• Family lunch Friday

She also said several local organizations (NIU, Sycamore’s Midwest Museum of Natural History, Ollie’s Frozen Custard, Sweet Dream Desserts and Catering, Energym Gymnastics, Sycamore Speedway, and YMCA) generously donated items for a raffle to buy musical instruments.

What do children learn between birth and age 8?

Only about everything that sets the stage for life. That’s not an exaggeration. Set aside attainment of crucial physical skills – walking, talking, chewing, toilet training, running, etc. – for a moment, and think about the brain.

According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, language, cognition and the ability to interact with the world start before birth, grow exponentially in a child’s first year or so, and peak before the age of 10.

Put another way, you might not have changed much in the past eight years. Children, on the other hand, go from zero to nearly everything between birth and 8.

And unlike that meeting you missed, once those learning years of childhood have passed, there’s no way to recover that opportunity.

All of which fits into the category of “duh.” Most adults understand the critical nature of first years.

So it’s stunning that America goes the wrong direction on early education at nearly every opportunity. Consider:

1. In February, President Barack Obama aggressively campaigned for more money for Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income families. Head Start is a political hot potato. Critics say it’s ineffective and wasteful.

A new report from the National Institute for Early Education Research disagrees. The meta-analysis of hundreds of studies nationally indicates convincingly that “when all the evidence is considered it is found that large-scale public programs have produced meaningful long-term gains for children, and not just disadvantaged children.”

Regardless, because of the sequestration, the White House estimates that 70,000 fewer children nationally will be served. Daycare and early education centers across the country are shutting down, closing early, turning away children or herding them into ever-larger classes.

2. According to salary.com, the national median salary for kindergarten and elementary school teachers is about $53,000. For daycare center teachers, it’s about $28,000.

3. Lofthouse told me that one of her profession’s biggest challenges is convincing people that “early childhood educators are not just babysitters.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com.

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