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Education Has Been Hammering the Wrong Nail. We Have to Focus on the Early Years.

Maria and her husband arrived at Adventist HealthCare’s The Lourie Center for Children’s Social & Emotional Wellness in 2018, seeking answers for their then-2-year-old middle son, Lucas.

Their household is a busy one, occupied with wrestling matches, filled with outdoor adventures, and covered all over in Legos. They absolutely love their chaos. And while Lucas is a wonderful young component of that joyous household—smart, caring, silly, loving and so very curious—he was having an extremely difficult time coping with day-to-day transitions between activities and interactions. He was also experiencing speech delays and was challenged in everyday communications. Lucas needed help. So did Maria and her husband. They were referred to the Lourie Center in Rockville, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C.

The Lourie Center’s therapeutic nursery program offers a comprehensive early childhood program that provides education and clinical services. It is inspired by attachment theory, to support children and their families who are dealing with an array of social and emotional, mental and behavioral health needs.

Lucas’ teachers and therapeutic staff at the Lourie Center were able to provide remarkably nurturing, attentive care and education for Lucas. Yet his journey has not been without setbacks. When COVID-19 hit, Lucas was profoundly shaken by the lockdowns. Both the isolation from his friends and beloved teachers and the changes in routine impacted his ability to regulate. He would not have continued thriving without personalized support from the team of caring educators and counselors at the Lourie Center who worked tirelessly to assist him during those turbulent months.

Lucas has since grown into a joyful, confident learner. He is happily preparing for kindergarten next fall. Nearly 80 percent of young children who attend the Lourie Center’s therapeutic nursery program will ascend to a traditional kindergarten setting. This is an extraordinary achievement considering the program only accepts children who need behavioral, cognitive, social-emotional and mental health support.

Critics say such services are too expensive to reach the masses, and it is indeed costly to provide this type of specialized support. However, societal savings considerably outweigh the initial costs. Consider that the annual cost of K-12 special education is nearly three times that of “general education”: $26,000 vs. $9,000 per student in California, for example.

Moreover, children who are expelled in preschool or early elementary are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated. Those later societal costs might have been avoided if the children are provided the nurturing attention in their early years to regulate their emotions and buffer toxic stress, which often results from exposure to trauma. Preschool classrooms with behavioral consultation services, such as Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (IECMHC), have recorded significantly lower expulsion rates.

The value of the human potential unlocked by early education and social and emotional interventions is more difficult to assess: it is arguably limitless. After all, Albert Einstein also had speech delays and received specialized (private) education to get ready for primary school.

There are many children like Lucas in America for whom early education and targeted social and emotional support can help mitigate the effects of emotional distress, dysregulation, or trauma, and forever change the trajectory of a child’s life. There are many more since the arrival of COVID-19.

The research team at Rapid-EC, an early childhood and family well-being survey launched in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, led by Dr. Phil Fisher at the University of Oregon, has tracked child well-being weekly since the onset of the pandemic. Emotional distress in children under age 5 has more than doubled.

Yale professor Dr. Walter Gilliam recently surveyed 50,000 preschool teachers across the country. He found that 56 percent report children being more aggressive, hyper-active or oppositional than they used to be, and 55 percent report children more shy, withdrawn or anxious.

For me, meeting Maria during the pandemic led to the profound realization that we have for too long hammered the wrong nail in American education. We have focused our energies, resources and talent on the K-12 years—specifically, K-12 schools, and even more narrowly, individual cognitive K-12 outcomes, such as reading or math. What children need—Lucas included—is a solid foundation, centered around stable, nurturing relationships with parents, grand-adults, teachers, little and older friends, mentors, and more. Hammering on a shaky foundation does not help. What the pandemic has shown us is that we also need a new modern redesign in education, one that refocuses on the essence of our social brains and our resilience: human connections. This is what the Lourie Center calls attachment, also known as love.

Building a Solid Foundation

Even before the global COVID-19 pandemic, a majority (58 percent) of all U.S. children ages 3-5 were not fully “healthy and ready to learn.” The health and learning readiness gaps that build up before age 5 fuel the achievement gaps in K-12 education. Most young children who start behind are more likely to stay or fall further behind. Our existing K-12 system does a good job at stabilizing the gaps, but does not succeed at closing them. I am not suggesting we take away the hammer, but rather build a stronger foundation for K-12 to be more effective. The reality is that too many kids start already behind.

If we take a group of 100 children from lower-income backgrounds, only 48 will enter kindergarten fully ready. Most of the 52 children who start behind will stay behind for life, but a handful will catch up during K-12 years. Simply put, the early years gap is the greatest source of inequities in our education system, and arguably in our society.

With a majority of our children not fully “healthy and ready to learn,” we are shattering much of our human talent potential as a nation. A deep body of research substantiates that children who enter kindergarten unprepared are less likely to finish high school, attend college, and to be in a stable relationship in adulthood, and more likely to go to prison, to be dependent on social benefits, to be unemployed, and to have long-term health issues.

Congress had been working on a historic investment in the early years. While legislative discussions have recently stalled, advocacy efforts continue to mobilize toward an ambitious policy package that would impact millions of little learners and families.

A Future of Learning Focused on Connection

The science is clear that children need at least one stable, nurturing relationship to thrive, and that relationships can help overcome trauma, especially in the early years. Relationships are linked to better academic outcomes. The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging the promotion of relational health to build resilience and buffer childhood toxic stress. The reality is concerning, though: even pre-pandemic, more than one in three young children do not have a caring adult relationship.

The web of relationships around our little learners is eroding: smaller family sizes, lesser adult family friends, greater isolation, fewer contacts with grand-adults, surging child and parent time online, and a race to college that starts very young with overscheduled children and less time to play and build healthy relationships. The depth, in addition to breadth, of those connections is also waning. Emotional connection between mom-baby has been dropping by half during the pandemic.

Starting in 2022, we need to reimagine our future of learning to be relational around key relationship pillars (“PTLM”).

  • Parents and family through greater supports and promotion of responsive, nurturing parenting;
  • Teachers through relationship-centered schools that are inclusive and trauma-sensitive;
  • Little friends through increased play and the promotion of kindness;
  • Mentoring adults in neighborhoods, activities and communities, including intergenerational programs. An intriguing recent proposal calls for an intergenerational “Caring Corps” of one million grand-adults supporting little learners.

Beyond school walls, city design, as well as technologies that are child- and relationship-centered, have a role to play in helping us connect—and reconnect with our humanity.

Like we have the concept of “zero emission” or “zero waste” in climate change, the time is ripe to aim for “zero human potential waste,” a world where each and every child, like Lucas, learns and thrives through caring relationships and is empowered to reach their full potential.


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