Lessons to learn from University research on disadvantaged children


Megan Gunnar is a familiar face at the state Capitol. Already this session she’s testified three times before legislators to share research on early child development conducted by her and her colleagues at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.

Their research shows that bad experiences in early childhood – poverty, abuse, homelessness, neglect — can follow a child through life, affecting learning, relationships and mental and physical health.

So can, newer evidence suggests, not speaking English when a child starts school.

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Such findings take on more weight than ever this year as legislators consider the state’s finances alongside Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposals for youth spending: significant increases for K-12 schools, all-day kindergarten, more special education classrooms and $90 million in early learning scholarships for poor children.

A policymaker should know the research, says Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the new Early Childhood and Youth Development Policy Committee. “To help children became successful adults you should put the money where research shows you get the most bang for your buck,’’ he said.

Institute faculty summarized some of their research findings Thursday on early brain development and the achievement gap, not for lawmakers – though a couple were in the audience, including Mullery, who said he was familiar with much of the research — but rather for more than 100 others working in the trenches with poor and immigrant families and their young children.

“Barriers to education achievement emerge at very young age,’’ and include adverse childhood experiences which carry lifelong, “toxic” consequences, unless there is early intervention, Gunnar said, though some children are resilient against all odds. Close family relationships, particularly that between parent and child, are “terribly important” in helping children rise above disadvantages, she said.

I won’t summarize all the findings presented by 10 faculty. Instead, here are some points I found particularly compelling. Keep in mind that these are small nuggets of the materials presented. The institute promises they’ll be posting video online of the presentations and you can view there the depth of this research by a distinguished faculty.

For now, consider these findings, and the public policy implications in terms of various factors, say health care and special education costs. Here goes:

  • Without intervention to mitigate circumstances, children who grow up to drop out of school likely have parents who are “emotionally unavailable’’ and are poor at setting limits and providing structure in that child’s life.
  • Without help, children who experience trauma early in life have significantly lower IQ scores than those who do not experience trauma.
  • Children who grew up with a “history of insecure relationships,” including their relationship with their primary caregivers, are more likely as adults in their 30s to suffer inflammation-based illness and “non-specific” symptoms than those growing up in emotionally secure homes.
  • Children experiencing homeless are not as accomplished as children living in secure environments in the so-called “executive-function skills,” those skills which allow children to practice self control, pay attention, control their emotions, wait their turn, follow directions, listen to teachers. Those same skills predict school readiness and success. Executive-function skills can be taught, even with such children’s games as “Simon Says.’’

Children do not learn a second language as rapidly and easily as many once thought. This means children who start school speaking a native language other than English start with an achievement gap that lingers for years.