Sep 09, 2016Burlington Free Press
Kara von Behren, director of the Williston Enrichment Center
I’m the director of an early childhood center and preschool. I’m also a mom of two boys who currently attend the center where I work. I straddle both sides of the early education equation. Is what we do important? Absolutely. It is the most expensive bill I have? Again, absolutely.
 
I want the best for my kids. As parents, we all want that. And yet what is best for kids is becoming increasingly challenging to attain.
 
In Vermont, more than 70 percent of children under age 6 have all parents in the labor force and are likely to need care outside the home. Early experiences are incredibly formative: 90 percent of the brain develops by age 5, during which time children form 700-1,000 new brain connections every second, laying the foundation for future success in relationships, in school and in life.
 
I’m one of the lucky ones. I work where my children spend their days. I see first-hand how much they learn when they build towers in the sandbox, learning about structural integrity and gravity and geometry and so much more. I hear what they tell me in the evenings about figuring out how to make the towers strong after it fell five times. I see their persistence and problem-solving skills in action.
 
I also know how valuable the interactions they have with their teachers are. Young children need strong, supportive relationships with caregivers to develop trust, empathy and self-esteem. My children have people who care about them and spend their days (and often nights) worrying about them, finding new ways to encourage and guide them, and using their extensive knowledge of early brain development to know when to push just a little more and when to slow down and give that oh-so-important snuggle.
 
I would love to be with my kids more. I also love my work and find purpose and meaning in what I do. If I’m not going to spend my days with my children, I want to be sure that those who are with them are the best possible teachers who have the best possible influence on them. I believe my kids deserve that.
 
However, many families are not so fortunate. A new report released by Let’s Grow Kids found that almost 80 percent of Vermont infant and toddlers likely to need care do not have access to high-quality programs; almost half of infants and toddlers likely to need care don’t have access to any regulated programs. This is unacceptable.
 
A safe, high-quality, compassionate environment should not be limited to just some of Vermont’s children. All children need an excellent start that prepares them to be successful. All children deserve at least that, and if families can’t stay home themselves, there should be places for those children that are safe, loving, and provide the best opportunities available.
 
Affordability is a serious challenge impacting access to quality care – one that I experience both as a parent and as a director of an early childhood center. I know I’m not alone; middle income families with two parents and two children are spending 28-40 percent of their household income on childcare. I also see how expensive it is to provide high-quality care. The amount of overhead for childcare companies, from insurance to cleaning to staffing for small ratios to materials that get more expensive the less time children will be able to use them, keeps us just barely scraping by. And I know what those amazing and talented teachers make. I have to tell the single mother that, despite her amazing work, I can’t give her a livable wage. I have to tell college graduates and licensed teachers that I won’t be able to give them enough to cover their student loans and live comfortably.
 
Ultimately, it is the children who suffer from the lack of consistency, the lack of stable charismatic adults in their lives to remind them of their true potential and gifts, and the lack of those who understand them for the young innovators and explorers and inventors that they are.
 
National studies show high returns for children exposed to quality early childhood care and learning opportunities. The earlier the investment, the greater the returns—and the greater the long-term savings in education and social services. The Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care is looking at Vermont’s child care programs as a whole and will issue a report in November.
 
I know my kids should have the best, and I’m also completely convinced that your children, nieces and nephews, siblings, friends and neighbors deserve it as well. Help me make this a reality. Help us do what is right and best for Vermont’s children. Join the Let’s Grow Kids campaign and learn all the ways you can get involved at www.letsgrowkids.org.
 
Kara von Behren, of Westford, is the director of the Williston Enrichment Center.
 

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