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Early education is essential for a child's future

By : Katie Ellis

The signs are clear - early childhood education sets the stage for how successful a child will be later in life. So said Craig Ramey, distinguished professor of health studies and founding director with his wife of Georgetown University's Center for Health and Education. Ramey, who has worked with local schools, addressed the Harpur Forum last week.

"There is a strong continuity between how we begin to treat children and how we bring them into kindergarten and the classroom, and their likelihood to be productive in society," he said. "A commitment to improving K-12 educational achievement begins in the first five years of life."

Ramey, creator of the Abecedarian (ABC) Project that has documented the benefits of early childhood education and health care, has long studied how children begin to learn.

"How children are treated from birth to age five has a profound impact on their intellectual and emotional base that allows them to give back," he said. "Working with young children is the smart thing to do and there are consequences of not doing it."

Ramey said there are seven essential transactions that caregivers of young children should employ, including encouraging exploration, mentoring in basic skills, protecting children from inappropriate disapproval such as teasing and punishment, and communicating richly and responsively.

He cited a study of the effects of a mother's speech on an infant and the positive outcomes when mothers used a higher level of language. "Every word we know, we learn from somewhere," Ramey said. "The study showed the powerful relationship between the kind of talking a child is exposed to and the child's ability to learn to read. Some kindergartners started school knowing 25,000 words, while others knew fewer than 500.

"All of the things a child is exposed to, or not, become the foundation of what that child brings to the first day of school," he said. "Kids who come prepared and have mastered reading by the end of third grade go forth and do well. For those who are not prepared, there is a cascade of negative things that happen."

Ramey said that programs to rescue children who start school without the proper nourishment and tools to learn are not nearly as effective as planned. "It's better to prevent than to remediate after problems occur," he said.

Ramey's ABC Project does just that. He created a mechanism that uses 13 factors to identify high-risk children.

"Could we alter the path of human development"? he asked. "The project showed that kids with intervention stayed in the normal IQ range, with others falling down the scale relative to their peers. Those kids who were most at risk were the ones who benefited the most. If you don't do well in school, a couple of things happen. First, teachers say you're not ready to go on to the next year. Then, after you've begun to fail, people begin to think you're not so smart and you get referred for special education placement. Our ABC Project results showed that early childhood education cuts special education placement from 48 percent to 12 percent."

Ramey said the Binghamton and the Broome County area have already created programs to help children be ready to learn and thrive. "It's clear that you as a community already think this is important to do."

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Last Updated: 10/14/08