This article appeared in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of the Erikson on Children newsletter, under the headline “Erikson makes a plan.” More from this issue
Girl reading

On June 10, 2010, the Board of Trustees adopted a five-year plan that sets Erikson’s sights on addressing seven critical issues in early childhood.

Whether longstanding—the consequences of poverty, the achievement gap—or emerging—the role of technology in the early childhood classroom, childhood obesity—all demand our best efforts in the years ahead.

The plan focuses on the following issues:

  1. The impact of poverty.
  2. The achievement gap.
  3. Changing demographics.
  4. Quality of infant and toddler child care.
  5. Child health and wellness.
  6. Growing reach of technology and media.
  7. Disconnect between early childhood policy and programs.

Read the complete plan and tell us what you think at strategicplan.erikson.edu.

1. The impact of poverty

According to the Census Bureau, a staggering 1 in 5 children were living in households with annual incomes of less than $10,830 in 2009—or less than $22,050 for a family of four—and experts say that figure appears to be continuing to rise. Black and Hispanic children are disproportionately poor, as are children under six years of age. Among all groups, median family incomes in 2009 were 5 percent lower than they were 10 years before.

Poverty dramatically influences aspects of children’s lives long recognized as essential to normal development. It affects children’s health, cognitive development, behavior, emotional well-being, and school achievement.

To cite just two statistics: children from poor families are 1.7 times more likely to be born with low birth weight—itself predictive of potential behavioral problems and poor school achievement—and 2 times more likely to repeat a grade in school.

Erikson will seek to decrease the developmental effects of poverty on young children and provide support for families living in poverty. We will

  • Improve the quality and accessibility of early intervention and infant mental health services.
  • Enhance family support and education to underserved families.
  • Develop early education that is responsive, well planned, and well delivered.
  • Provide current and pertinent information to guide the decision making of policymakers, families, and the public to address the effects of poverty.

2. The achievement gap

In the U.S., children who start behind are likely to stay behind. Worse, the cumulative nature of early learning ensures the gap will grow, and grow quickly. Even when children work hard and make progress, the disparity between them and their more advantaged peers widens from fall to spring of a single school year.

Boy with macaroni

Compared internationally, the effects of educational and social disadvantage from an early age are even more pronounced. While children who have access to superb educational resources compete favorably with the children of other developed countries, the majority of our nation’s children show consistently and significantly poorer performance across the board, raising serious concerns about the nation’s future ability to compete in the global economy.

We will seek to ensure that all children have access to high-quality early childhood educational opportunities and raise the quality of early math and science education. We will

  • Expand the New Schools Project, which provides expertise and continuing professional education to preK–3 programs in Chicago.
  • Expand the scope and activities of the Early Mathematics Education Project, which improves math teaching and academic performance in the preprimary and primary grades.
  • Explore creating a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) center dedicated to improving the quality of early science and math education.
  • Establish an integrated administrative and resource infrastructure to expand the scope and impact of all our community initiatives.

3. Changing demographics

In 2008, 48 percent of the children born in the U.S. were members of minority groups, compared to 37 percent in 1990. Children of immigrant families whose first language is not English are the fastest growing group of children in the nation: as of 2005, nearly one-quarter of children in the U.S. lived in such families.

Illinois has the fifth largest population of immigrant children of any state: it is estimated that 1 in 7 families in Illinois and 1 in 3 in Chicago speak Spanish at home. Across the U.S., dual language learners are more likely than children in the general population to come from poor communities and to experience many of the disadvantages typically associated with poverty. Moreover, the move toward inclusion of children with special needs, from physical disabilities to autism spectrum disorders to learning disabilities, is adding to the diversity of children in early childhood settings.

In Illinois, the greatest teacher shortage areas are in special education and bilingual/ESL.

Erikson will further develop and expand an inclusive educational model, meeting the emerging needs of a diverse and changing society. We will

  • Increase the number of special education teachers by developing and launching an early childhood special education letter of approval as a specialization in the master of science in early childhood education, the first step in developing a master of science in early childhood special education.
  • Increase the number of bilingual and ESL teachers by offering an online version of our Early Childhood Bilingual/ESL Certificate Program for certified teachers.
  • Continue to graduate highly qualified professionals who understand the role of race, class, and culture in children’s development, the challenges of inclusion, and the needs of immigrant children and who possess the ability to build bridges to families and communities.

4. Quality of infant and toddler child care

Today, nearly 73 percent of the nation’s infants and toddlers spend some or all of their day in child care, ranging from centers and relative or nonrelative care outside the home to home care by nannies. Nearly 40 percent of these children are in care full time—a figure that jumps to 58 percent for African American children—and 34 percent are in multiple care arrangements.

Children in class

We know relatively little about the quality of care these young children receive, and what we do know is not encouraging. More than 40 percent of infants and toddlers in center-based care, for example, are in poor-quality classrooms. Home-based care, which is generally inferior to center-based care, is more widely used by low-income families.

Erikson will continue to address the knowledge gap in this area and enable professionals and the public to improve outcomes for the youngest children. We will

  • Increase the number of high-quality infant specialists nationwide by launching a new online master’s degree with a specialization in infancy.
  • Increase the capacity of existing early childhood professionals to work with infants and toddlers through online professional development modules.

5. Child health and wellness

Good health and nutrition are fundamental for optimal child development, mental health, and learning. Many young children, however, lack basic access to adequate health care and nutrition; many also live in housing and in neighborhoods that pose significant health risks from environmental factors. Asthma, hearing and vision problems, diabetes, behavior problems, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, allergies, poor dental health, heart problems, and obesity are just some of the threats to these children’s development.

Obesity alone has become a critical issue in childhood, particularly among  children whose recreational opportunities are curtailed by unsafe or underresourced neighborhoods. By age six approximately one in five children is overweight or obese, and more than one-half of obese children become overweight at or before age two. In the last two decades the prevalence of overweight infants under six months almost doubled, from 3.4 percent to 5.9 percent, and research shows that both low-birth weight and high-birth weight babies are at risk for obesity.

In the realm of mental health, while “school readiness” is a national goal, 10 to 14 percent of all children between birth and age five have socioemotional problems that impair their ability to benefit from early educational experiences. They have not learned to regulate their emotions; have not developed a consistent, trusting, positive relationship with adults; cannot adjust to the emotions of their peers; are not motivated to learn; or cannot remain calm and attentive. Such social and emotional skills are the necessary foundation  of a child’s ability to learn.

Erikson will address early health habits and health issues that have lifelong consequences. We will

  • Develop a collaborative research agenda, led by faculty and the Herr Center, that will address prevention of obesity in early childhood.
  • Build faculty expertise in this area as part of a faculty development plan.
  • Develop a specialization in child health and wellness as an option in the master’s degree.
  • Create a series of professional development modules for early childhood practitioners to support child health and wellness.
  • Increase the number of qualified practitioners by launching an online infant mental health certificate program.
  • Expand existing initiatives in infant and early childhood mental health, including the Fussy Baby Network.®
  • Expand access to assessment and early intervention services at the Center for Children and Families.

6. Growing reach of technology and media

A 2005 study found that 59 percent of children under the age of two watch television for an average of more than two hours a day. Television is found in the bedrooms of 30 percent of children birth to three years old and 43 percent of children four to six years old. Computers and smart phones have become ubiquitous; in addition to ebooks, electronic games, and “learning toys,” young children are exposed at ever-younger ages to technologies that were once the domain of adults.

Girl and book

Little is known about long- or short-term effects of technology and media on young children. Few early childhood educators are conversant or comfortable with technology in the classroom; among professionals and parents alike, uninformed rejection of technology is as commonplace as uncritical acceptance of it.

Erikson will facilitate research and dialog in this area to ensure that parents and professionals alike can make thoughtful and informed decisions on these issues.  We will

  • Advance understanding of the impact of new technologies on young children and their families.
  • Explore how technology can play a positive role in the preparation of early childhood professionals and in the development of young children.
  • Provide families, early childhood professionals, and other caregivers with the information they need to make wise choices about children’s use of the technologies that are now so widely accessible.

7. Disconnect between early childhood policy and programs

Despite growing public funding, there is no “system” of early care and education in the U.S. Public programs serving identical children may have different enrollment criteria, staff requirements, funding streams, and eligibility rules for family participation. Some private programs are regulated by state governments; some are not. The dearth of communication between and among programs and agencies and lack of cooperation result in gaps in service and redundancy. Under such circumstances, even committed policymakers are ill-equipped to encourage reform and development.

The field requires a new kind of leadership: professionals who understand early childhood systems, how those systems impact individual programs, and how to develop appropriate policy responses to improve early care and education.It also requires an informed and empowered public.

Across a range of initiatives, Erikson will help create the conditions for coherent and effective policy. We will

  • Create this new class of leaders by establishing an online master of science in early childhood leadership and policy.
  • Increase the amoung of information available to policymakers by expanding the core capacity of the Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy.

An invitation to get informed and get involved

Erikson was founded in the belief that family and society play a critical role in the development of children. Although we have educated the public and supported families from the beginning, those activities have been secondary to our stated mission: educating the professionals who serve children and families.

Central to our 2010–15 strategic plan is the insight that success in our primary mission is inseparable from those “secondary” activities. To that end, the plan embraces educating and supporting families in their quest for quality early care and education and encouraging public involvement in what we believe is the most important of all social issues: the care and nurture of our young.

Among the many ideas presented in the full strategic plan are an annual Futures of Children conference and public education initiatives such as adult education courses, readings, videos, public lectures, and Web-based information on issues relevant to parenting and grandparenting.

Our first step, however, is to invite you to comment and contribute your ideas about the problems we face and the solutions we propose. You can tell us what you think at strategicplan.erikson.edu.