“Babies can’t wait” say Minnesota foundations


How far back do you have to go to find a time when children’s socioeconomic status does not affect their brain functioning? According to Megan Gunnar, professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, children’s brain functioning begins to show that gap by the time they are two years old.  The difference is not just in the richness of their experience, but in the impact of toxic stress on the architecture of the brain. Early intervention needs to target the causes of the toxic stress and protect the child from its impacts. 

Gunnar spoke at the fourth annual Nancy Latimer awards from the Minnesota Early Childhood Funders Network, which this year honored Art Rolnick and Jane Kretzman for their work in advocating for effective, early services to at-risk children.

Jane Kretzmann is a senior program officer at the Minnesota Community Foundation, where she has worked on developing the Project for Babies, a multi-year initiative to promote the healthy and positive development of infants and toddlers. The focus on infants and toddlers matches the research on brain development.

Gunnar reviewed research showing that neural circuits are wired in a bottom-up sequence. Developmental delays, she said, are a function of the brain not developing the architecture it needs – or developing architecture that actually hinders learning. Toxic stress provides negative early learning, setting up barriers to learning and achievement. “If you have highly-formed defensive circuits,” she said, “it is going to be difficult to sit back and calmly, coolly, rationally learn.”

Graphic summary of today’s Nancy Latimer Convening for Children and Youth created by Edie Meissner.

Art Rolnick’s job description doesn’t sound much like early childhood development – he’s the senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and an associate economist with the Federal Open Market Committee. His research, however, includes work on early childhood development, and it’s that work that brought him the “Nancy” award.

Gunnar emphasized that research shows that early intervention is more efficient and produces higher returns for the money invested. Studies also show that low cost services that have little impact are a waste of money. Responsible investments focus on effective programs that are staffed appropriately. For example, research shows that the most effective home visitor programs are staffed by highly trained visitors, continue for more than three visits, engage family participation and use curriculum targeted to individual family needs.

Dr. Richard Chase spoke about closing early childhood opportunity and achievement gaps. He said that research shows that there is no single solution for closing the gap between higher income and lower income children, between white children and children of color. He pointed out that 30 percent of Minnesota children are living in low-income families. The disadvantage is not equally distributed – 60 percent of American Indian children, 40 percent of African American children, and 30 percent of Latino children live in poverty.

To make sure that all kids have a good start in live, more than one approach must be used. Early childhood education will do some of the work. Health care for children and mothers, better nutrition, income support – these are all pieces of the puzzle. To close the gaps, multiple approaches must be used at the same time. For example, limited access to basic health services begins to disadvantage children when their mothers lack access to prenatal care.

Chase pointed out that increases in poverty mean more children going without services. Early Head Start now serves less than 10 percent of eligible children, and only about 30 percent of eligible three-year-olds. In 1999-2000, Head Start served 71 percent of eligible three-year-olds. The decrease in eligible children served is due to the increase in the number of children in poverty.

“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Art [Rolnick],” said Chase. Rolnick’s research, Chase said, showed the importance of early investment in children and the high return on that investment. Chase said that the “high return kids” are “a better economic investment than department stores, stadiums or airlines.”

The Wilder Foundation provided the venue for this year’s “Nancy” awards, which are presented by the Minnesota Early Childhood Funders Network and co-sponsored by the Minnesota Council on Foundations. The awards are given in memory of Nancy Latimer, who worked on issues of early childhood education and intervention for at-risk children across the state. In 2005, Nancy Latimer said:

It’s important to use both head and heart. Our society seems to be losing that kind of heart–the kind that cares for the common good, rather than frontier individualism.

At the time of her death in 2006, Art Rolnick praised Nancy Latimer’s work and called her “my mentor on early education.”

The Powerpoint presentations by Drs. Megan Gunnar and Richard Chase will be available at mcf.org in a few days.