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Beyond Literacy: An Early Learning Investment Strategy

Why Early Learning investments should focus on ensuring children and families thrive  

At United Way, we partner with hundreds of organizations throughout the region to dismantle poverty and expand opportunity for all. One of the ways we look at expanding opportunity is through education. It’s imperative that we improve equity in education and child learning outcomes for all families. But there are factors that make it difficult for some children, especially those living in under-resourced communities, to learn and thrive.  

A recent report released by the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL), examined the needs and challenges of families with young children throughout the state.  Backed by county and zip-code level data, the Family Needs Assessment provides a tool that identifies how to allocate resources to ensure young families throughout Pennsylvania can thrive. 

The Family Needs Assessment shows that while many counties have significantly improved maternal and child health outcomes, some big challenges remain. Families were still experiencing problems related to substance abuse, mental health, intimate partner violence and unemployment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the pandemic is expected to exacerbate these challenges. In Philadelphia, there is substantial room for improvement - with 34% of children under the age of five living in poverty in Philadelphia county. This presents significant challenges to maternal and child health outcomes. 

These factors can gravely impact young children and their ability to learn. Toxic stress, as a result of the impacts of poverty for example, can damage brain architecture in young children and lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and overall health. The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University recommends supporting responsive relationships for children and adults through strengthening core life skills and reducing stress for children and families to promote better learning.

Simply put, to effectively improve childhood learning and early literacy outcomes, we need to improve the well-being of young children and their families. That means employing evidence-based programs to coach caregivers on how to support learning in young children and provide a stable home environment that minimizes stress. 

Given the limited state and federal resources that will be available to invest in child and family well-being as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, community-based organizations should adopt a targeted investment approach by prioritizing the communities and families that data indicates have the most need. The Family Support Assessment report is an important tool to help better allocate resources.

As United Way's early learning investment strategy evolves, we plan to better use tools such as the Family Support Assessment to prioritize making investments in targeted zip codes within our region. Most importantly, given what science tells us about the importance of having thriving caregivers to support the healthy brain architecture of young children, we plan to make strategic co-investments in collaboration with our Financial Empowerment pillar.  

We encourage our philanthropic partners to consider adopting a targeted approach to improve the wellness of children and families in need. As we embark on 2021, we look forward to working with our partners to expand our region's collective understanding about early literacy so that it encompasses an up-to-date reflection of how young brains develop. 

Positive early experiences for both children and families are the foundation for positive learning and life outcomes.

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