Research Shows that Early Care and Education Initiatives are Key to Helping Children Thrive

October 5, 2022

Up to three out of four children will experience or witness a traumatic event – resource scarcity, abuse, loss of a loved one – before they enter kindergarten.

These potentially traumatic events (PTEs) pose a danger to the physical and psychological welfare of millions of children in the United States. Moreover, trauma during critical developmental windows in childhood can lead to mental health disorders like depression and anxiety throughout adulthood.

Is there a way to reduce the harm associated with childhood trauma? According to new research from Caroline Martin and colleagues in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences (PIBBS), the answer lies in Early Care and Education (ECE) programs.

“Public health initiatives can promote wellness and ameliorate the effects of early exposure to PTEs…ECE programs can fill an essential role in the creation of stable, supportive, and structured environments while providing high-quality, play-based learning opportunities that allow children to develop self-regulation and early academic skills,” Martin expounds.

These evidence-based programs provide support from trained specialists who help patients heal without re-traumatizing. They work with children at home, in specialized centers, and/or in classrooms to help them thrive socially and academically. The training also applies to parents, teachers, and caregivers.

“With approximately 15 million children under the age of six served across these settings, the ECE system is well-positioned for wide-reaching impact,” says Martin, citing primary research.

Need for trauma-informed interventions is growing. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a massive uptick in childhood trauma, including increased isolation and exposure to community illness and death.

In order to match the need, ECE programs require continued investment.

Identifying the most effective programs, training highly skilled caregivers, and reducing turnover in these challenging positions will require ongoing research and increased funding. Pay parity, which would see ECE caregivers earning similar salaries to early elementary educators, and greater staff mental health initiatives are significant first steps.

Historically marginalized communities are particularly vulnerable. An emphasis on equity should include more access to ECE programs in marginalized communities, and greater diversity in the classroom and the administration, including but not limited to the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic levels. Additional funding would improve these initiatives.

So, where does funding come from?

Often, ECE programs “blend” or “braid” multiple funding lines together to meet their needs; this patchwork can leave gaps. It is difficult to accurately assess and report success rates across various funding mechanisms. This means critical metrics are being overlooked.

In the ongoing conversation about federal funding for childcare in the U.S., policymakers should prioritize ECE development. The ECE system greatly needs a single, harmonized funding mechanism, with an emphasis on trauma-informed training, staff support, diversity, and equity.

Investing in ECE programs has the potential to remediate the vast, pervasive effects of childhood trauma experienced by up to 75 percent of our country’s pre-K population; an investment that will endure for generations.