A new report on the health of Vermont's children shows that 40 percent of the state's children were deemed "not ready" for kindergarten in 2012-13. Almost one-third of third-graders read below grade level -- a figure that jumps to 45 percent for children living in poverty.
Vermont's infant mortality and premature birth rates are very low, while the proportion of children with medical insurance is high, according to the report.
But two out of five Vermont kids under age 6 live in low-income households. And the number of children placed in protective state custody has increased 17 percent since 2002.
"Any business leader that does not think this is a huge business issue, candidly, they just haven't done their homework," Green Mountain Power president and CEO Mary Powell said Friday morning. She was speaking at Burlington's Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center for the launch of a three-year, statewide public awareness campaign about early childhood development.
The three-year "Let's Grow Kids" campaign is funded by Building Bright Futures, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and the Vermont Early Childhood Alliance.
It aims to improve public understanding about the ways children's earliest years affect the rest of their lives.
A child's range of activities, the stability and depth of their human relationships and the methods they learn for coping with stress all leave a lasting imprint, Dr. Joseph Hagan told an audience of about 180 business leaders, early childhood educators and public and state officials gathered for the campaign's launch.
Powell said those impacts matter to business not only because today's children are tomorrow's workforce.
They are also their parents' potential distractions from work, especially when adequate and affordable early childhood care is not accessible, she said.
Powell said she became involved with Building Bright Futures as a women's equality issue: She saw that women entering the workforce still shouldered a disproportionate responsibility for child-rearing.
"Nineteen years ago, it was all about women not being able to engage intellectually and emotionally at the same level in business," Powell said. They simply were too strained by the needs of their children.
Today, she sees that burden shifting. Men and women both are stressed out now, she joked.
The fact that both men and women are sharing burden makes Powell optimistic that a solution will be reached.
"It gives me hope that it actually will change, because if it just keeps getting cast as a classic women's issue, it never will," Powell said.
Hagan and JFK Elementary School teacher Jessica Perrotte said, however, that many aspects of early childhood seem to be worsening.
Perotte has taught at JFK in Winooski, for 16 years. She told the audience that she and her colleagues have observed a clear trend of children's social skills declining.
They have a harder time sharing and taking turns, she said.
Teachers see more "parallel play" among children, when the kids should be interacting.
Her school has developed a shared strategy for responding to this behavior and teaching some kids what they're not learning at home: how to interact and manage their emotions.
Perotte said her belief is that over-reliance on technology plays a big role in the developmental changes she's noticed.
Hagan ties it to parental wellness, and boils much of that down to income inequality. The Building Bright Futures report makes the same connection. Parents of a lower socioeconomic standing are having to scramble more and more to make ends meet, much less optimize developmental opportunities for their children.
"And God bless them," Hagan said. He didn't criticize the parents in such situations, but observed they simply "don't have a lot of time to talk."
Talking, singing and other interactions with adults are crucial in the early years, however, because of how those activities help the human brain develop, he explained.
Modern science indicates that 80 percent of a child's brain development occurs by age 3 -- reaching 90 percent by age 5, according to research from the Harvard Center for the Developing Child.
Stress hinders development. It triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which slows growth and impinges on connectivity between neurons.
Adverse childhood experiences can cause lifelong harm, Hagan said. An emerging field of genetic study even points to a likelihood that early childhood trauma can alter a person's genes, thereby preparing that altered imprint to be passed down from generation to generation.
"That's why it's so important we reach them when they're young," Hagan said.