The Need to Focus on Early Childhood in Connecticut
The research on early childhood is clear. Early childhood experiences, beginning at birth, are tremendously important in shaping a child’s future success. From birth to age five, a child’s brain has grown to 90% of its adult size and forms the foundation upon which later health, learning and behavior depends. This early brain development is crucial for later capacity in hearing, speech, vision and cognition.
As Connecticut is one of the richest states in the nation, many parents here are well aware of the importance of these early years of a child’s life and, significantly, have access to the highest quality programs and services available. However, Connecticut is also the state with the largest income gap. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in ten state residents live in poverty, and the child poverty rate statewide is almost 15 percent. Child poverty is a particularly severe problem in several Connecticut cities: Bridgeport: 36.7% of the population; Hartford: 48.8%; New Britain: 33.4%; New Haven: 37.3%; and Waterbury: 38.8%. Because Connecticut is a high cost state, these federal poverty level numbers don’t fully portray the severity of the problem in Connecticut. For example, the number of children who qualify for free and reduced lunch in these cities is alarming: Bridgeport: 98.8%; Hartford: 90.7%; New Britain: 72.7%; New Haven: 77.8%; and Waterbury: 79.8% (KidsCount Data Center).
Many families here struggle to provide their children with access to basic needs, high-quality child care, preschool, and health services. Moreover, many do not have knowledge of child development or positive parenting practices. Further exacerbating the problem is a persistent racial and socio-economic gap in preschool attendance. In affluent towns, 90% or more of the children have a pre-kindergarten experience, but in four of the five largest cities less than two thirds of children are enrolled in pre-K; other low-income districts have similar numbers
For children in urban and other low-income districts, lack of preschool often also means a lack of other services. For example, it is estimated that 10% of children aged one or two exhibit social-emotional delays; and 10-15% of 2-3 year olds exhibit developmental and behavioral concerns. Self-control, social skills, and executive function are all connected to better school and work performance and even better health outcomes. Preschools are often the place where delays in these areas are identified, children are given tools to navigate their feelings and to interact with others, and where families get referrals to more intensive social, emotional, and behavioral health services.
About the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance
Founded in 2002, the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance is a statewide organization committed to improving outcomes in the areas of learning, health, safety and economic security, for children ages birth to eight. Our goal is for all children in Connecticut to enter kindergarten healthy, eager to learn, and ready for school success. Our guiding vision is that families have strategies and capacity for early care and education so that each child is supported by comprehensive and interconnected services including early learning, nutrition, and social, emotional, and physical health.
The Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance has a proven record as the go-to organization for early childhood in Connecticut. Since its inception, Alliance-led efforts have resulted in:
- A state agency devoted to early childhood, the Office of Early Childhood.
- The creation of more preschool spaces for low-income children.
- Closer coordination with early childhood experts, colleagues and other leaders at the national level.
- Placement of thousands of stories and interviews in the news media providing education and awareness on early childhood issues and research in such outlets as Connecticut NPR, NBC, and Fox affiliates as well as traditional and online news sources.
The Alliance was initially established as a networking opportunity for early childhood organizations but has since grown to become the go-to organization in Connecticut for early childhood information sharing, networking, policy development, and advocacy. The Alliance currently has over 100 member organizations serving thousands of young children and continues to grow. Our members represent early childhood broadly and diversely – in issue expertise as well as race, ethnicity, and language. Services provided by members include child care, preschool, diaper collection and distribution, home visiting, early intervention, mental health treatment, research, and workforce training.
Members still gather monthly to network as they did when the Alliance first formed, but now members also hear presentations on new and emerging issues from a wide variety of speakers, and learn about policy development at the local, state and federal levels. The Alliance has grown its communication capacity in order to raise awareness of early childhood issues. The Alliance now shares information about early childhood policies, reports, news and events with interested individuals and organizations, directly reaching over 2,000 individuals weekly, and places an average of 100 early childhood stories per year in news outlets that reach the general population. We use email, text messaging, social media and traditional media to spread information about early childhood, and we ask colleagues and constituents to share updates and information as well.
A growing base of members and partners is crucial to the Alliance’s ability to achieve our goal for young children. All are experts in the field, doing the crucial hands-on work with young children and their families. It is their knowledge of how things work on the ground and their observation of the actual problems, combined with the Alliance’s attention to critical junctures in news, research and policy that make the difference in addressing the issues. The collective strength of the Alliance and its membership make it the state’s leading organization related to early childhood issues, information and policies.
The Alliance is an unincorporated entity. The fiscal agent for the Alliance is the Connecticut Association for Human Services (CAHS), a federally recognized 501c3 non-profit organization.
Organizational Priorities and Goals
All of the work of the Alliance is designed to improve outcomes for children ages birth to eight. In order to ensure optimal early childhood development for every child, the Alliance advocates for comprehensive services and policies that promote healthy development including child care, early education, home visiting, feeding programs, mental and behavioral services, health care, housing and family economic security. The Alliance seeks to eradicate the adverse conditions that inhibit healthy development and access to enriching experiences, conditions such as poverty, racism, violence, abuse, and neglect.
The Alliance has recently completed a strategic review and has identified three priority focus areas to strengthen efforts to improve outcomes for Connecticut’s young children: a comprehensive system of early childhood; infants and toddlers; and mitigating the negative impact of family poverty on early childhood development.
Comprehensive System of Early Childhood - The Alliance and our partners have identified eight components that are necessary for optimal functionality of our early childhood system. These are: 1) Better outreach to parents, 2) uniform reporting requirements, 2) uniform funding streams, 4) fully-funded slots, 5) a quality rating and improvement system, 6) workforce development and improved workforce compensation, 7) uniform standards for early learning, 8) coordinated, complete and transparent data collection.
Infants and Toddlers - It benefits everyone when families with infants and toddlers can develop strong connections, access high quality care, and have basic necessities such as diapers. This is because the most significant time of life for secure attachment and brain development is in the first 1,000 days. Yet, this time period is often ignored in the policy world. Over the last few years, preschool has been a focal point when it comes to early childhood policy. It is evident that the public and policy makers understand how a preschool experience improves a child’s readiness for kindergarten. Not surprisingly, the result on all levels – federal, state, and local - has been to create more subsidized preschool spaces. To ensure that attention is also paid to the first three years of life, the Alliance will proactively promote the importance of the infant and toddler years as well as ways that families, communities and the state can take actions to make the most of this important time in a child’s life. This effort will include education about early brain development, illumination of the gaps and deficiencies in our early care and education system when in comes to issues that impact the infant and toddler population, and promoting best practices and solutions.
Mitigating Impact of Family Poverty - Family poverty has a significant effect on child outcomes. New research shows that family poverty has a negative impact on healthy brain development. Poverty decreases the chance that a child will be able to access high-quality child care, and it reduces access to preschool. Not surprisingly, we see a direct correlation with the growing achievement gap, and in later economic outcomes. Up until 2016, the Alliance has only peripherally addressed the issue of family poverty. With child and family poverty growing along with increasing income disparity, the Alliance is poised to more directly address this issue in our education and awareness efforts.
Outreach and Engagement
In order to advance all strategic priorities, the Alliance engages in a number of activities that are designed to:
- Communicate vital information about early childhood to a wide variety of audiences to increase education and awareness of early childhood issues.
- Convene our members and engage our partners and contacts to exchange knowledge and develop solutions.
- Mobilize the early childhood community to make changes in policies and practices that will improve outcomes.
Communicating Vital Information - The Alliance utilizes a number of communication tools to expand, intensify support, and raise understanding and commitment.
- Weekly Update – Each week, the Alliance provide updates and information in the form of an email to our full contact list of 1,800+ people (and growing). The Update is a digest of early childhood news, events and policy developments that the staff has screened, reviewed, prioritized, and summarized to be concise and easily understood.
- Social Media – The Alliance regularly posts to Facebook and Twitter contacts (850+ and 1750+ respectively, and growing) to share early childhood information and raise awareness of issues and events taking place.
- Media Outreach - The Alliance regularly connects with the established traditional news media seeking placement of stories, op-eds, or quotes. The Alliance acts as a spokesperson for the early childhood community. When additional expertise is required or helpful, Alliance staff refers reporters and editors to the best contacts available.
- Conference Calls - To provide more details and an opportunity for discussion on policy topics, the Alliance hosts conference calls as needed.
- Webinars – From 2016, the Alliance will increasingly utilize the webinar format to engage a wider audience on the background of relevant topics and possible strategies for addressing key issues.
- Expand the Reach – The Alliance will seek to grow its contact lists, develop stronger relationships with all contacts, and to improve the data available for each contact.
Convening Members and Engaging Partners - The Alliance convenes its members and directly engages additional partners to further raise awareness, provide education, exchange knowledge and develop solutions.
- Alliance Monthly Meetings – The Alliance holds a monthly convening of its membership for a presentation on an early childhood topic, a discussion of priority issues, and substantial time for members to network.
- Alliance Advocacy Committee Meetings – This Committee meets monthly to help set a policy agenda for upcoming legislative sessions and to plan strategies for input to administrative agencies on policy developments.
- Early Childhood Caucus – During the state legislative sessions, the Alliance Advocacy Committee and other stakeholders meet to discuss proposed legislation, testimony, and strategies to share information with policy makers.
- Early Childhood Advocacy Day – Each spring the Alliance hosts Early Childhood Advocacy Day at the State Capitol, bringing 200 or so early childhood supporters to the Capitol to learn about proposed legislation and to meet with their elected officials.
Mobilizing the Early Childhood Community - The Alliance will periodically serve to inform early childhood supporters of time sensitive matters and make action recommendations as needed.
- Action Alerts – In addition to public hearings, there are other times when civic engagement is needed in the policy making process. The Alliance acts as a monitor for early childhood supporters, and sends alerts for action at critical points in the process.
- Public Hearing Testimony – Throughout each legislative session, the Alliance produces and delivers testimony to legislative committees on proposed legislation that will impact young children and their families. The Alliance alerts other organizations through our email network of public hearings and assists in writing and submitting testimony.
- Press Conferences - The Alliance holds press conferences as needed during the year to highlight important policy issues in Connecticut.
Impact and Measurement of Success
The mission of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance is to improve outcomes in the areas of learning, health, safety and economic security, for children ages birth to eight. We measure success against the three core components of our work, applying quantitative and qualitative evaluative criteria as applicable:
- Building an efficient and impactful early childhood system in Connecticut that is easily accessible to families and coordinates all the services young children need to reach their full potential.
- Convening, unifying and mobilizing the early childhood community to be strong and informed champions for young children.
- Disseminating timely and easily understandable information on early childhood policy, news and events, reaching the widest audience possible.