PennLive: Pre-K is a healthy investment in child development: Susan Kressly
May 13, 2016 by Susan Kressly

I’ve spent more than 25 years as a pediatrician in Pennsylvania, and in that time I’ve encountered many children who face challenges in their growth and development – challenges that, if left unaddressed, can limit a child’s opportunities, including the opportunity to learn.

High-quality pre-k is a proven tool to help overcome some of the negative impacts many of our young children face, including those children at higher risk of academic failure due to economic circumstances or family social and emotional issues.

Pre-k works, and Pennsylvania should be investing more in it so more of our young learners can benefit from it.

Why is high-quality pre-k such a significant, cost-effective way to help ensure a child’s healthy development?

In part because one of the most significant periods for a child’s physical, mental, social and emotional growth is before they even enter kindergarten.

Yet too many children face adverse conditions in these early years that can be detrimental to their healthy development.

Poverty is just one factor that can not only limit a child’s opportunities, but it also is a leading factor in what we called “toxic stress” in children.

Stress itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing for children or adults.

Some level of adversity or challenge is inevitable in every child’s life, and learning to manage the stress that can accompany that adversity or challenge is actually an important part of a healthy development.

But when we talk about toxic stress, we’re not talking about the type of stress that stems from everyday childhood challenges like taking a test, performing at a recital or playing goalie on the soccer team.

Learning to manage that type of stress is actually an important part of healthy development.

Toxic stress is a persistent, extreme, unrelenting type of stress – the kind related to things like prolonged economic insecurity – that can do lasting harm.

Research shows toxic stress can actually alter the architecture of a young child’s brain, bringing with it long-lasting negative impacts that can undermine the ability to learn, think, react and interact with others.

Fortunately, there are proven ways to mitigate the harm of toxic stress in young children.

One way is to help provide these children with caring relationships and stable, supportive environments. Those are exactly the kinds of positive relationships and environments found in Pennsylvania’s high-quality pre-k programs.

These programs can bring about dramatic gains in academic and social skills and in children’s emotional development, particularly young children who might face disadvantages due to circumstances beyond their control.

High-quality pre-k programs not only prepare children for success in school and in life, but they also have been shown to promote good health in childhood and well into adulthood.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that early childhood interventions such as high-quality pre-k programs have a high return on investment in both human and financial terms.

The statewide, nonpartisan Pre-K for PA campaign is calling on Pennsylvania leaders to increase investments in high-quality pre-k in the fiscal 2016-17 budget by an additional $90 million.

That way an additional 7,400 young learners can benefit in the next school year.

The Pennsylvania Chapter of the AAP supports this call for stronger pre-k investments.

Much of the work pediatricians do is focused on prevention. We work to make sure children are safe from things that might cause them harm.

Whether that means vaccinating against diseases or promoting the use of safety measures around the home.

And we work to mitigate the health impacts of things we cannot prevent, finding ways to heal and help children recover from harm that has come to them.

Pre-k programs are, in essence, a form of both prevention and healing.

High-quality pre-k programs can help prevent the loss of opportunity by preparing children academically and socially for success once they enter kindergarten. And these programs can help heal by lessening the impact of toxic stress and other negative forces that can undermine a child’s success.

If you look at it in that context, I think it becomes clear why pediatricians are so strongly supportive of giving all of our children access to high-quality pre-k.

And it becomes clear why Pennsylvania needs to continue increasing its investments in high-quality pre-k so more children – particularly those at greatest risk due to circumstances beyond their control – can benefit from pre-k’s proven return on investment.

Susan Kressly is the president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Read the op-ed here.