Businesses and economies are more successful in communities where families can also find success, which includes access to high-quality early learning experiences and concrete supports. So it was fitting for NC Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) Executive Director Muffy Grant to be the featured speaker at the Cary Chamber November Education Committee meeting.
Grant spoke to the Cary Chamber of Commerce Education Division, which aspires to facilitate and champion business community involvement by promoting partnerships and innovative programs for the positive influence of students, teachers, and schools.
Why influence matters for educational, career, and societal success
When looking at what influences student development, Grant shared a quote that guides NCECF, “Brains are built, not born,” from Dr. Jack Shonkoff of the Harvard Center for the Developing Child.
“When each child is given the best opportunity to succeed — to realize their potential and contribute as productive citizens — N.C. prospers,” Grant said.
However, not all families have access to equitable opportunities to unleash their potential.
Business leaders have supported the need for stronger education, with the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce Foundation weighing in, saying, “American business depends on a strong workforce, now and in the future, to compete and succeed globally. But America is facing an unprecedented workforce crisis: a large and growing shortage of skilled workers. One root of this problem is that we’ve underestimated the importance of the earliest years of life.”
Recent North Carolina 2022 scores from the nation’s “report card,” or National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), show that our youngest readers need more support to have a strong foundation for success. Addressing these challenges and increasing reading proficiency requires that we begin caring for our children with special investment in the birth to age eight period. This is because the most rapid period of development in human life happens from birth-to-eight. End of third grade outcomes predict academic achievement and career success.
Child development is a dynamic, interactive process, but it is not predetermined. Children’s earliest experiences play a significant role in shaping their development. In fact, they actually determine how a child’s brain is wired, creating either a strong or weak foundation for all future learning.
Early experiences are built into children’s bodies — shaping brain architecture and impacting how biological systems develop. Every experience a baby has forms a neural connection in the brain at a rate of more than a million synapses per second in the early years. Not all will last. Connections that get used more strengthen, and those used less fade. Positive early experiences build a strong foundation for learning and future health.
More than academics
As essential as they are, we aren’t born with the skills that enable us to control impulses, make plans, and stay focused. We are born with the potential to develop these capacities. For example, learning to play with others can lead to language skills and improved teamwork, making up games and rules leads to negotiation skills, learning to follow rules leads to development of sound ethics, and early exploration leads to creative thinking and problem solving.
Strong human capital creates economic capital. Nobel Laureate Professor James Heckman has said, “The foundation for school, career and life success is largely determined through the development of cognitive and character skills beginning in children’s earliest years.”
North Carolinians get it. A 2018 voter poll indicated strong interest in investing in early childhood education to build a stronger North Carolina. Of those surveyed, 80% said early education should be a higher priority than reducing business taxes in the state. Data showed that voters from all parties side with investing in early childhood education over reducing business taxes. Yet only 1.10% of state funding goes to early childhood education.
NCECF provides policymakers, advocates, business leaders, and the public with research and analysis about the impact of federal and state birth-to-eight policy and innovations proven to achieve results for young children. Guidance and oversight for early care and learning in North Carolina is bifurcated, coming from both the Department of Public Instruction and Department of Health and Human Services.
The impact of this small amount of funding can be felt by parents trying to afford the cost of child care, which exceeds the cost of college tuition in North Carolina, but also the low wages offered to educators interested in careers in the early care and education sector.
“It (the child care system) was a fragile system before the pandemic,” said Grant, while also noting how home visiting and parent education could be effective interventions during early childhood to support, empower, and strengthen families.
NCECF leads and supports state and local collaborations — bringing together health, family support, birth-to-eight leaders across government, policy, private, nonprofit, philanthropic and research sectors — to advance a shared vision and course of action for maximum impact for children and families.
What can the business community do to impact early childhood education?
Business and community leaders have great influence in where our funding is appropriated. Policy is both words and dollars. Business and community leaders can build up other business leaders to help shape sound public policy and use their circles of influence to encourage investment of more than the 1% currently set aside for early childhood education.
NCECF engages business, faith, law enforcement, and community leaders as early childhood champions to effectively communicate the broad societal impact of policies that affect early development and learning.
There’s an immediate need to help students recover from learning loss, and we can certainly start at home with our own families, but we’re looking at the bigger picture for equity across our communities, to have the greatest impact, starting early. Two factors we’ve identified are access to child care and supporting family-friendly business practices.
Access to child care
Access to stable, high-quality early care and education is crucial to ensure children develop on track and are prepared for school and life success. Yet one in three working families is struggling to find child care, and even when care is available, it’s often unaffordable.
When parents and caregivers can’t find care, it impacts business and the economy:
- Millions of workers — most of whom are women — have left the workforce because of care needs. This contributes to ongoing workforce shortages and slows economic growth.
- In a January 2022 census survey, one in four parents and caregivers of children five and under say they’ve had to cut work hours, taken unpaid leave, left a job or held off a job search because of child care.
- Annual losses from inadequate child care cost North Carolina families, businesses, and the economy $2.9 billion a year as of December 2020, according to research from NCECF. That number has likely increased.
- College students who are parents are 10 times less likely to finish a bachelor’s degree within five years. Degrees and professional certificates can increase prospects for more employment opportunities.
Employers play an important role in addressing child care needs for their employees. Some are doing so already, and others are interested and not sure how to proceed. NCECF’s team offers an overview of options to guide businesses in improving their employees’ access to child care.
Family-friendly business practices
Employers can consider policies and practices that are business smart, family-friendly, and future ready. Seventy-five percent of U.S. mothers and 50% of U.S. fathers say they’ve passed up work opportunities, switched jobs, or quit to care for their children.
Family-friendly workplaces have a competitive advantage. But more importantly, for children and families, the benefits of family-friendly workplaces are numerous and long-lasting. They include:
- Positive impacts on health, development and well-being,
- Financial stability, and
- Future career success.
Children whose parents have access to family-friendly benefits receive much-needed support and time with their parents during the most critical years of brain development, which leads to better health and well-being throughout their lives. And family-friendly benefits such as accommodations for pregnant workers or paid leave improve a mother’s health, lowers risk of miscarriage, and improves an unborn baby’s health, including lower risk of preterm birth and low birthweight.
NCECF’s Family Forward NC initiative offers a unique certification, which designates employers that offer policies and practices that support the health and well-being of working families and children. To achieve certification, an employer must offer best-practice policies in one or more of five main areas:
- Paid leave and wages.
- Accommodations for pregnant and breastfeeding workers.
- Child care.
- Health and wellness benefits.
- Scheduling practices.
Employers across North Carolina want to attract and retain the best employees, and they want those employees to be happy and healthy. Businesses can get certified to advance their business practices to do this.