A young child’s adult caregivers are the most important people in his or her life. In Vermont today, more than 6,000 children are living in kinship care, which means they are being raised by relatives or family friends. Throughout the United States, this is increasingly common, in many cases because the parents are struggling with substance abuse, mental illness, and/or domestic violence. A kinship caregiver can fill the important role of helping a child who has experienced adversity feel safe and secure again—and serve as a buffer against additional stress in the child’s life. Because so many of the children living in kinship care have come from challenging situations, new caregivers often need support in navigating behavioral or social-emotional challenges the children may be experiencing.
It’s natural to have questions when caring for a young child. Vermont has many strong programs and services to support young children and families who need support. Still, for many parents, it can be challenging to figure out what services are available and how to access them. As a result, not all families get connected to the services they need. A new statewide call center called Help Me Grow Vermont has been set-up to address this problem. Parents and caregivers anywhere in Vermont can now dial 2-1-1 to be connected with trained Vermont Child Development Specialists who can answer parent and caregiver questions about children’s behavior and development, identify if their child is at risk, and connect callers to programs and supports right where they live.
"The reason my book has the title Our Kids is that these are all our kids. Our future depends upon making sure that all our kids—in Vermont or New Hampshire or New York or L.A.—are doing well." Those are the words of Robert Putnam, Harvard social scientist, author of Our Kids and advocate for a strong start and equal chance in life for all children. Putnam was the featured guest at the Vermont Community Foundation’s Annual Meeting event last Thursday.
Oral health care in the early years is an important part of healthy development for our youngest children. National standards set by dental and pediatric organizations call for children to visit a dentist every six months and establish a dental home (the dental office where they will get ongoing care) by age one. Yet, nearly 40% of Vermont children and teens with Dr. Dynasaur coverage did not get dental care in 2012. While Vermont has made great strides in extending health insurance to low and middle-income Vermonters, eligibility does not always translate into access—especially when it comes to dental care.
Vermont’s Promise Communities initiative is an exciting new effort to support children and families in the state. Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, a program that has experienced great success in preparing children for school and for life by starting with empowering their communities, the Promise Communities initiative brings together local representatives from education, health care, social services, private and public sectors, as well as parents and community members. This collaboration creates a comprehensive approach to transforming the community in order to better support young children and families—particularly those with high needs. While many states have implemented this type of place-based initiative, Vermont is among the first to use this model to address the nature of rural poverty.
As more and more Vermonters learn about the importance of early childhood, leaders at the state and community level have been working together to make sure that policies and plans are in place to support young children and families. In January 2014, Vermont received $36.9 million from the federal government for a Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant to build a high-quality and accessible early childhood system in the state so that all young children will be ready to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.
The city of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy has received world-wide recognition for its system of high quality early education and care. Over the past 25 years, I’ve had the good fortune to organize and participate in a number of Vermont study groups to Italy to learn about Reggio Emilia’s infant-toddler programs and preschools. I visited schools that serve as declarations of a child’s right to spend his or her days in spacious, light-filled, rich, stimulating environments, and marveled at its most recently built schools which serve as bold architectural statements of the central role early education can play in a community’s vitality and well-being. Observations and reflections such as these lead me to ponder the question of what Vermont’s communities might learn from Reggio Emilia.
Last Sunday, at an event called "Circus-palooza" in Shelburne, a single dad took a deep breath and admitted on camera, "Sometimes it feels like you might as well just sit at home and not work at all. Because the expenses of child care are overwhelming. I can't keep up." This hard-working dad was participating in an interview for Small Talk, a new initiative of Let's Grow Kids and several key partners to collect the personal stories of Vermonters who have interacted with Vermont's early childhood system.
As our supporter list has grown, the need for Let’s Grow Kids' trainings across the state has also expanded. We've heard this need and are hard at work developing our training offerings into six diverse modules, all with the goal of helping our supporters increase their knowledge and skills as champions for early childhood. We can’t wait to share our new training options with you—they’re designed for everyone who wants to make a difference: parents, child care professionals, educators, business people and community members.
While parents and child care providers play a critical role as children's first teachers, public librarians are also in a unique, “front-line” position as educators who interact daily with many children of diverse ages and backgrounds. If you have visited one of the 75 Vermont libraries participating in the Vermont Early Literacy Initiative (VELI), you’ve probably noticed that it’s stocked with colorful, quality picture books, hands-on learning materials and an enthusiastic librarian who is eager to share reading, conversation, new vocabulary, standards-based learning activities and many other resources with young children, their parents and caregivers.