Early Learning Water Cooler Network Conference: The Case for Universal Early Childhood Education

By Katy Jordan, Enrollment Administrator

I attended the 8th annual Early Learning Water Cooler Network Conference in Sacramento, Feb. 22–23, 2016. The theme this year was “Stronger Together: Transforming Opportunity for Every Child.” It is co-sponsored by the Advancement Project, a nonprofit organization focusing on civil rights and equity in education, and the California Department of Education. I was struck by the commitment of all attendees to the focus of the event: the importance of early childhood education for language development, for brighter futures for children, for the curative possibilities it affords to children who have experienced stress and early trauma.

More than 300 individuals attended this conference, with a wide range of careers, organizations and experience in education present. They came from private and public sectors, and all were stakeholders in the field of early childhood education. Individual speakers and panel participants were a range of elected California legislators, educators and leaders in many organizations championing the needs of young children in California and the nation.

The first keynote speaker was Patricia Kuhl, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her group, the LIFE (Learning in Informal and Formal Environments) Center, uses modern technology to examine principles of human learning in different environments. Kuhl’s research shows the critical period for learning language is before age 7, and that babies try to master which sounds are used in their native language in the first 8 months of life. She told the group it is the “social brain” that is required for language development. “The brains of young children need the parental social input.” More of her work can be seen at http://life-slc.org.

The next keynote was from David Grusky, professor and executive director of Stanford’s Center on Poverty & Inequality. Grusky stated that California has a higher rising poverty rate than any other state, and that unequal opportunities are the source of poverty. Grusky’s message was that all children need access to good early learning, and it is our responsibility to try to help all communities achieve this. He said this is for the public good, as there has been a 50 percent decline in mothers at home since 1970. These children need good quality childcare and good early education. He hoped that eventually early childhood education would be public in California. This group’s methodology, reports and briefs are available at: http://web.stanford.edu/group/scspi/center_about_home.html

The last keynote was by Paul Tough, New York Times Magazine writer and author of the 2012 book How Children Succeed. He has covered everything from a study at McGill University about how grooming behavior in mother lab rats can lead to young rats that are braver, more curious and live longer, to The Adverse Childhood Experience Study, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, which looks at linking childhood trauma to long-term health and social consequences. (See www.acestudy.org for more information.) Tough discussed stress and learning in young children, with brain science studies to back up his comments. He recounted studies from Russian orphanages where the children were not thriving, suffering from “chronic under-stimulation.” With simple retraining of the nursing staff, to hold and talk to and sing to the children, they made substantial gains in overall health and vitality. He reminded us all that “relationships are the most important part of any child’s environment!” Tough said that children from ages 0 to 3 need a secure attachment, with a “close attuned relationship with a parent” or caregiver. If they are not given this opportunity, they may face peril. There is a negative cycle of stress, leading to behavior problems, leading to punishment, leading to bad feelings, leading back to stress. Since his first book, How Children Succeed, he has learned so much about the mechanisms of learning and child development that his new book is titled Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.

Beyond the keynote speakers, three different panels on day two discussed a range of topics relating to issues of early childhood. Members of the panels were elected state officials, the head of the California teachers union, the governor’s budget office officials, university educators and leaders in the nonprofit world. The panels continued the conversation of bettering the lives of children through early childhood intervention. My overall impression was that all present would like to see universal preschool become a reality in California, not just for those who can afford to choose, and both the public and private sector are working to make it happen. Recordings of the keynote speakers and the panels can be found on YouTube by searching the phrase “ECE Water Cooler Conference 2016.”