Groups discuss early childhood education, preview documentary

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BENNINGTON -- Eighteen public and private organizations from across the state of Vermont presented a panel discussion on early childhood education, plus a sneak peek of an upcoming PBS documentary on the subject.

The panel was made up of five Bennington area residents with knowledge of early childhood education: Dr. Martin Luloff, chairman of the department of Pediatrics at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center; Cinda Morse, director of Oak Hill Children's Center in Pownal; Betsy Rathbun-Gunn, director of early childhood services at United Counseling Service of Bennington County; Erin McKenny, a local parent; and Becky Umbach, benefits administrator at SVMC.

The audience was treated to a 30-minute preview of "The Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation," which is expected to be released next spring. According to the project's website, the documentary is currently expected to be broadcast in five segments: "The Raising of America," "Once Upon a Time: When Childcare for All Wasn't Just a Fairytale," "Are We Crazy About Our Kids?," "Wounded Places: Confronting Childhood PTSD in America's Shell-Shocked Cities," and "DNA is Not Destiny: How the Outside Gets Under the Skin."

The program, which was part of a series of similar events put on across the state over a two-week period, was held at Bennington Museum, and began with a presentation by Luloff on the science behind why early childhood education is important. "If we don't understand what we're doing now, and make changes," said Luloff, "we're going to pay the cost for that for years to come."

Luloff pointed to a chemical called cortisol, which the brain produces in stressful situations. The chemical allows us to respond positively to stress, he said, but when present for prolonged periods it can actually negatively impact the physical development of the brain. In addition, he pointed out that 80 percent of brain synapses have formed by age 3, and 90 percent by age 4. Prolonged stress during those key formative years -- specifically from neglect, hunger, or abuse -- can put children at a severe developmental disadvantage to their peers before kindergarten even begins.

Luloff pointed out studies that have shown that newborns who spend only one hour bonding with their parents respond more positively to images and recordings of their parents than other age- and sex-matched individuals. He also referenced the still face experiment, in which a parent responds normally to their infant, then abruptly begins responding only with a straight face and a blank stare. Within under a minute, the child is clearly emotionally distressed. This, said Luloff, demonstrates the stress created in a child by just a few minutes of neglect. "Now, imagine that over a day, or a week, or a month," he said.

During the panel discussion, Luloff said that one group alone wouldn't be able to solve the problem. "In order for us to get anything going at all, there's going to have to be collaboration," he said, "It isn't just going to be just one organization, it isn't going to be one directive, it's going to require the involvement of parents, certainly of educators, of administrators, of physicians, all of us realizing that if we want something to change, we're going to have to change it ourselves."

McKenny described herself as a mother of three; an 8-year-old son, a 5-year-old son, and a 2-year-old daughter. She said that, as she and her husband both need to work full-time, she struggled to find in-home childcare providers who could both work all the hours necessary, and, just as importantly, who McKenny could afford. She said that she had sent her first child to the Bennington Early Childhood Center, which she felt was an excellent program, but had been unable to afford that either in subsequent years. "Finding childcare for all of our children proved to be extremely hard," she said, "I sent frantic emails to everyone I knew to see if they knew of anyone. We finally found a provider that could take both my son and daughter, but I had to pay close to $700 just to save a place."

"I think more programs for our pre-k children need to be put in place," she added, "Currently, over 40 percent of children in Vermont are not prepared for kindergarten, and we need to change that."

The event was put on by 18 organizations from across the state, including Let's Grow Kids, Building Bright Futures, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Fletcher Allen Health Care, Hunger Free Vermont, Vermont Birth to Three, Project Success, Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children, Vermont Community Loan Fund, Vermont Early Childhood Alliance, Vermont Head Start Association, Vermont Children's Trust Foundation, Vermont Parent Child Center Network, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, the Vermont Department of Health, the Vermont Commission on Women, the Vermont Agency of Human Services Department of Mental Health, and the Vermont Agency of Education.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com

Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB


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