MANCHESTER -- Eighty percent of a child's brain is developed by the age of three, according to a statewide public education campaign, meaning that a large part of a child's development happens before they ever see the inside of a classroom.
Melissa Riegel-Garrett, executive director of the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children, spoke at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester on Sunday, on behalf of Let's Grow Kids, a private-funded awareness campaign that is trying to inform Vermonters about the importance of the earliest years of a child's life in terms of their development.
The first three to five years of a child's life are critical to their success in school, in relationships, and in the workforce, said Riegel-Garrett, who has been the director of ther VAEYC since 2006. She began her presentation with a startling fact: 40 to 50 percent of Vermont children are not prepared for kindergarten. She said that the most critical things parents can do for their young children are to avoid what she called "toxic stress," provide good nutrition, safe and stable places for them to live and play, and positive early experiences. Toxic stress, she said, is the stress that comes from being neglected, being hungry, and being abused. She compared this to "good stress," or the stress that comes from learning new skills, such a riding a bike or speaking in front of an audience of strangers.
Riegel-Garrett also noted that 72 percent of Vermont children have all of their parents in the workforce, the eighth highest rate in the country.
This, she said, made finding high-quality childcare even more important. She told the story of her own son, who attended an accredited early education center. One of the instructors noticed that he would always stand up and walk over to look at the book the teacher was reading during story time, making it so the other students couldn't see. They tried different methods over time to discourage this behavior, but it persisted. Finally, one of the teachers, who was licensed and held a degree in early childhood education, observed him in other areas of the center, and found that he never participated in activities that involved looking at details or required fine motor skills, including art or playing with small blocks.
After a conversation with the instructor, Riegel-Garrett took her son to see an eye doctor, who discovered that her son had extremely poor eyesight, and said that the situation would have only gotten worse if untreated. After he had received his glasses, the instructors eased him into the activities he had previously avoided, pairing him, for example, with children they knew wouldn't make fun of his poor drawing skills. By the time he was ready to begin kindergarten, he had caught up with the other children on the many activities he had been unable to do before. "For us," said Riegel-Garrett, "his attending that quality of early education program made a big difference. It changed the trajectory he was on completely. As a mom, I'm always dealing with what-ifs. What if his caregiver had been annoyed with his behavior, instead of trying to understand why he was acting that way?"
Riegel-Garrett stressed that parents should care about what childcare programs their children attend, and should not just enroll them in the first one they can find. She suggested checking centers for National Association for the Education of Young Children, National Association for Family Child Care, and Vermont Stars accreditation, although she noted that sometimes bugetary restrictions could prevent otherwise good centers from reaching the minimum requirements for accredititation. "It's not about whether the program is nationally accredited, its about the attitude of the program," she said.
The Let's Grow Kids program is in the first of three intended years, and involves speakers from all across the state. Each of the speakers encouraged audience members to sign the Let's Grow Kids pledge, which reads, "I want a society where all children can grow and live to their full potential. Because 80 percent of a child's brain develops by age 3, building the foundation for success in life, I believe it's important we ensure that Vermont's children have quality early experiences. Therefore, I support efforts to build positive, lasting change that will allow all of our children the opportunity to succeed in life."
To learn more about the program, or sign the pledge, you can visit their website at letsgrowkids.org.