Maine’s future rests in large part on how well we, as adults, foster the healthy development of our youngest generation. If we want Maine’s future to be in good hands, we need to develop a generation of young people who are ready and able to lead our communities and grow our economy in years to come. But if we expect solid outputs, we need to invest in solid inputs.
Fortunately, what our children need is not a mystery. As a pediatrician, I see every day what science has been telling us for years. Early childhood is a time when the brain is literally building itself from the ground up, in much the way a house is constructed. When children have enriching experiences and relationships early in life, children get off to a good start, establishing a strong foundation for all the learning and growth that follows.
Unfortunately, not all children have access to the kinds of experiences that will most benefit their healthy development. That is why we need to do all we can to ensure that our systems of early care and education are helping families lay a sturdy foundation for the growth and development of our next generation. Weak foundations increase the odds of later difficulties — in learning, behavior and health. And that has implications not only for particular children and families, but for all of us.
This is precisely why Head Start is so important — not just for the children and families it serves, but for all of us in Maine. Study after study has confirmed the significant positive outcomes for children in Head Start programs. As the science would predict, we see positive effects in kindergarten readiness but also in more positive outcomes later in life.
Compared with their peers, Head Start participants are far more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, gain secure employment and lead healthier lives overall. It is certainly to our benefit to make sure we are doing all we can do to strengthen families and strengthen communities. Head Start is simply essential to such efforts, as it provides not only education to our most vulnerable children, but health, nutrition and social services to enrolled children and their families.
In Maine, we have been forward-thinking in trying to ensure our systems of early education are responsive to the science of how children learn and grow. We have relied on our innovation to design and implement high-quality programs that have created significant long-term improvements for children and significant differences in the lives of families throughout our state.
We need to renew our support of programs that make a real difference in our children’s well-being and in the lives of families throughout the state. That is why failing to fund Head Start is essentially a decision to undermine our children’s futures. We have long known that we are far better off when we pay it forward, and that’s what Head Start does for our kids by giving them a solid foundation on which to grow.
The Maine Legislature could have built on that foundation by supporting LD 1682, An Act to Preserve Head Start and Child Care Services. But, while it passed the Legislature, it was not funded.
Head Start makes a difference here in the state and is a prime example of investing in what works. We must work together in the future to ensure that all children have the strongest foundations from which to grow and that our state budget reflects our priorities as Mainers.
Dr. Steven Feder is the current president of the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Feder is a pediatrician in Boothbay Harbor.