By Stacey Kallem,
Barbara H. Chaiyachati,
and Irène P. Mathieu
One of the most rewarding parts of training to be a pediatrician is caring for a newborn patient and then watching that child grow up into a bright, curious, and engaging toddler. However, all too often, we see those perfect newborns we care for face obstacles beyond their control that hinder healthy development.
Adversity in the first few years of life, such as poverty, parental substance abuse, and neighborhood violence, can result in toxic stress, or dangerously high stress over long periods of time. Toxic stress has a significant negative impact on brain development - nearly all of which occurs within the first five years of life.
But there is cause for hope. Research shows that supportive relationships with caring adults in structured environments, such as those found in prekindergarten programs, can mitigate the effects of toxic stress. That is why, along with two dozen colleagues from across the state, we recently went to Harrisburg to urge our legislators to increase Pennsylvania's investment in pre-K programs.
Children engaged in high-quality preschool show improved interpersonal skills and better self-regulation and cognitive skills than those in lower-quality programs. In addition, high-quality education in the first few years of life results in improved educational outcomes, fewer adolescent pregnancies, and decreased involvement in the criminal justice system.
In Pennsylvania, only 30 percent of the low-income 3- and 4-year-olds who qualify for state-funded pre-K are able to receive these services. This is not for lack of interest; in fact, the waiting lists for programs like Head Start and Pre-K Counts are extensive. Rather, 70 percent of our neediest children are not given the right start on life for one simple reason: We don't adequately fund these essential programs.
As pediatricians, we find this concerning. If we want to maximize the potential of Pennsylvania's children, we need more state funding for pre-K. We are asking for an increase of $90 million during fiscal year 2016-17, which would give 7,400 more children access to pre-K across the state. While this figure may sound daunting, research has shown that for every dollar invested in preschool, society saves up to $17 on special education, incarceration, and social services.
The data are clear. Our children cannot wait until age 5 to receive formal, quality education; their brains are developing rapidly long before kindergarten. When we miss out on this critical window of development, we miss out on immeasurable human potential and reinforce inequities through cycles of poverty.
Each year we fail to act is a year of lost opportunity. Let's not lose this year.
Stacey Kallem, M.D., is a third-year resident in Philadelphia. Stacey.email@example.com