This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community.
The first five years of a child's life are far and away the most important in terms of long-term development prospects. Ninety percent of brain growth occurs during those first years. The brains of small children are also much more flexible and malleable, prone to being shaped by things like care and nurturing, but also by violence, stress and abuse. What happens in those first five years, it turns out, can have dramatic consequences in a variety of ways -- socially, cognitively and even financially.
Scientists call this state of heightened adaptability in the developing brain "plasticity" and it is what it sounds like -- a time when the brain, and thus the person to whom it is attached, can be molded and shaped to reflect the environment in which that person lives. This awareness of the importance of the first five years is slowly percolating into the policy world. President Barack Obama made sure that programs that support 0-5 programs were a significant part of his Affordable Care Act, and in his recent State of the Union speech also mentioned the need to increase efforts to support young children.
One such effort is called the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. It provides roughly $1.5 billion over five years to states to help families struggling to provide adequate care to their small children. These sorts of programs have been around for more than a decade but a spate of recent scientific studies have shown the importance of early childhood and maternal care in promoting successful outcomes.
We know, for instance, that quality home visitation programs can dramatically increase a child's chances of academic success. Children who received home visitation care were shown in several studies to have better cognitive development, higher IQ scores, better language abilities and, eventually, higher graduation rates from high school.
Across nearly every available health indicator, in fact, children who received quality home visitation care fared better. Compared to control groups, they showed fewer mental health problems, fewer language delays and better social and cognitive integration with peers and parents. Their immunization rates tended to be higher on average. Depression rates decreased, as did prenatal smoking and hypertensive disorders.
These programs can be costly, of course. But researchers say the financial benefits in offering quality preventive care at an early age can translate into huge savings down the line. It is much harder to stage effective interventions with teens, young adults and adults, and much more expensive. For one thing, their brains are less "plastic" which means interventions take longer, have lower success rates and can be harder to keep consistent. One advantage of the 0-5 programs is that nurse visitation workers become a constant and reassuring presence in the lives of struggling families in ways that benefit both parents and children.
Study after study has shown that home visitation programs can reduce physical and mental abuse rates dramatically. This is, of course, a key factor in reducing community violence over the long-term since we also know that abused children often tend to become abusing adults. Stopping the pattern in its tracks at the start is the best way to ensure community health in the long run.
Gov. Jerry Brown attempted to cut back on 0-5 programs in California, but was stymied when health workers balked and pushed back. Based on the science, more money and resources should be put into preventive care like the nurse home visitation programs if Californians want to get serious about stopping community violence where it starts, with vulnerable parents, their infant children and their families.
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or firstname.lastname@example.org