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Quality Counts in Early Care

THE ROANOKE TIMES- Op/Ed Piece
by Amy Hatheway

Hatheway is a research and grants developer for TAP Head Start and chairman of the operations committee at Smart Beginnings of Greater Roanoke.

On May 14, The Roanoke Times joined other media outlets in publicizing a national longitudinal study on the lasting effects of early child care ("Study: Kids who were in day care take more risks"). I applaud The Times for covering this important issue, and I want to highlight some of the most important findings that deserve attention and were left out of the article.

What the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development reaffirms is that quality care does matter. Teenagers score higher academically and are more likely to make good decisions as 15-year-olds when they had quality care in their earliest years. Whether a child is cared for solely by family members or in other child care settings, it's the quality of the interactions between adults and children that makes the most difference.

Research tells us that children do best when adults provide opportunities for children to play and interact with people and things in nurturing environments that intentionally challenge children to grow and develop. This doesn't happen by accident -- and it happens only in the highest quality early childhood settings and in homes where parents know what they can do to best promote their children's development.

As this study confirms, children's most important caregivers are their parents. Parents who respond to their children's needs with love and empathetic attention and who make the most of the educational opportunities in everyday routines are doing what children need most to be ready for kindergarten and beyond.

Like anything else, parenting is done best when parents know what works. Parents are constantly bombarded with the message that there are quick -- often expensive -- things that we must do for our children to get ahead: extracurricular activities for very young children, worksheets and flashcards and educational computerized toys with all sorts of bells and whistles. While these activities may have a place in our children's lives, nothing beats an attentive, informed, loving parent interacting with a young child. With a book. With empty boxes or with blocks. While sorting laundry. On a walk. Snuggling in an armchair.

The good news is that all families can make these things happen. None of those activities costs money or requires advanced degrees. In my 20 years of working in early childhood and parent education, I've never met a parent who doesn't want the best for her or his children. While benefits are greatest when we start when our children are babies, it's never too late to make a difference. Parents are their children's first and most important teachers and there's nothing that can take that power away from them.

But parenting well can be exceedingly difficult. Babies don't land in our arms with users' guides. And, as the study concluded, the quality of the interactions between adults and our youngest children makes a difference that lasts.

As an advocate for children and families, I encourage parents to seek out support and information that will help them do the very best for their young children. Fortunately, here in the Roanoke Valley we have a group of professionals, parents and community leaders who recognize the influence parents have on their children's development.

Smart Beginnings of Greater Roanoke is a local initiative that helps parents and early childhood programs make sure that every child enters kindergarten with the skills he or she needs to succeed. Its Web site, www.smartbeginningsroanoke.org, has links to great resources for parents, early childhood professionals and members of the larger community. You will find information about parenting and choosing quality child care and preschool. There are also links to Smart Beginnings' partner agencies.

Several preschools and child care programs in our community can support parents by providing children with loving guidance and encouraging their development in those most important early years. Many of these programs are on the road to improving the quality of their services through Smart Beginnings and are star-rated by Virginia's Quality Rating and Improvement System. These programs are on the Web site as well. Some, such as TAP Head Start, provide both high-quality care and education for young children and supportive parent and family services, including parent education.

I am proud to be a part of organizations committed to making sure all of our children are cared for well and given every chance to succeed. I urge everyone in our community to get behind high-quality early care, in every home and in every classroom.

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The United Way of Roanoke Valley serves as the fiscal agent for Smart Beginnings Greater Roanoke.

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