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Head Start cuts couldn’t come at a worse time

By Betsy Flagler
John Rosemond
Betsy Flagler, who lives in Davidson, writes the nationally syndicated Parent to Parent column.

Last year about 1 million of the nation’s children in low-income families got a jump toward kindergarten through Head Start, the federal program that helps children up to age 5 get ready for school. This fall, about 57,000 children will lose access to a placement in Head Start and Early Head Start.

Slots for 51,000 preschoolers ages 3 to 5 were eliminated, along with child-care slots for 6,000 babies.

If you can afford to send your child to preschool, ballet and soccer, and make an effort to read, talk and play together, your little one is well on his way to being ready for kindergarten.

But where does a child go if he has no spot in Head Start or day care, and his family has no resources to place him in another early childhood education program? He’s at risk for staying home with a mother who is too depressed to read to him, teach him appropriate words to describe his feelings, and take him to the library or playground. Mothers who suffer from depression are less involved in home- and school-based activities and have fewer interactions with teachers, research at UNC-Greensboro shows. Their kids are behind before they even start kindergarten.

“The cuts in Head Start due to sequestration (budget cuts) could not have come at a worse time for children and families,” says W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “Head Start has raised quality in the decade since the National Impact Study, and the administration recently began implementing the most ambitious reforms of Head Start to increase effectiveness in its 50-year history.”

At the same time, he says, poverty is up and families have less ability to pay for preschool on their own. Budget cuts undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to improve quality and have prevented Head Start from improving the poor salaries of its teachers.

One goal of Head Start is to help parents learn to foster a child’s development. Research into the effectiveness of the program underscores what’s helpful to all children in general, no matter a family’s income level: Talking and reading to your child, having an encouraging attitude and providing time for free play.

Positive emotions help us learn and see new ways of doing things, but negative emotions restrict how we use our minds. Fear of failure cuts off creativity, and playfulness builds it up, according to Peter Gray, a developmental psychologist and author of “Free to Learn” (Basic Books, 2013).

Encouraging a child’s instinct to play leads to more self-reliant students for life, Gray says. Through free play, children learn to control their lives, solve problems, get along with peers and become emotionally resilient.

“It is no wonder that children have become ever less creative as our schools have become ever more centered on testing and evaluation,” Gray writes. “For those who take school seriously, continuous testing and evaluation create a continuous threat.”

Email Betsy Flagler at p2ptips@attn.net.

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