Guest editorial: Importance of early childhood education cannot be overstated

Emmie Gardner
Holy Cross Ministries CEO

There is great truth to the adage “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” More and more, research suggests just how crucial a child’s early experiences are in setting the tone for the rest of his or her academic life.

Neurologists tell us that by the time a child is 5, his or her brain is already 90 percent developed. This means that providing young children with nurturing environments to learn, play and grow will have tremendous positive impacts on the adults they become.

Saturday, Oct. 5, is World Teachers’ Day — a holiday founded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to commemorate teachers around the globe. This year’s theme is “Young Teachers: The Future of the Profession.” In keeping with this focus on younger generations, I would also like to consider the young students these teachers are instructing.

At Holy Cross Ministries (HCM), a Utah nonprofit organization that provides a variety of health, justice and education services to underserved communities, we have made early childhood education a focus and have observed the profound benefits on young children in Summit County.

Our Parents as Teachers Program offers critical support to marginalized parents from the prenatal stages to their child’s third birthday, using curriculum that has been proven to create lifelong impacts on child brain development and learning. And our School Readiness Program provides high-quality classroom education to at-risk preschool-age children.

With funding from the Whitney Foundation, HCM conducted a longitudinal study on School Readiness graduates from 2016-18 in partnership with the University of Utah’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies and research specialist Dr. Mark Innocenti.

In our analysis, we found that children who attended HCM’s School Readiness preschool program scored significantly higher on kindergarten entrance screening exams than students who did not attend a preschool program.

We also observed that School Readiness graduates scored at or above benchmark levels on third grade literacy screenings while the majority of children who attended no preschool scored below benchmark. Additionally, students who attended any preschool earned higher SAGE math scores in fourth grade than students without preschool education.

Clearly the academic benefits of early childhood education cannot be overstated. In addition to these important outcomes, our School Readiness teachers have also witnessed the powerful social and emotional benefits our preschool students experience.

Many children in our School Readiness program have already encountered some form of trauma in their young lives, and coming to a safe classroom with caring instructors and daily structure can be life changing.

School Readiness teacher Andrea Mathisen recalled one student who was “very fearful and shy” when she first came to school. “She was hesitant to try new activities without adult support and was scared to even have the lights off at naptime.” But as the school year progressed, “she began to shed her fears and became one of the most confident and self-assured children in our class.”

“Most importantly, I want children to know that they are loved and valued. When they know this, then academic growth will follow naturally,” Mathisen said. School Readiness teacher Ivoone Chapa echoed this sentiment, saying she strives every day to tell students “how wonderful they are” and “how important their actions are.”

This World Teachers’ Day, I would urge you to not only thank and remember your favorite sixth grade science instructor or high school English teacher. Please also consider those who nurtured and taught you as your earliest memories were formed. They likely played a significant role in shaping the person you are today.

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