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Your View: Everyone has role to play in getting children ready for kindergarten, future success

Teacher Carolyn Vilet greets kindergartners on their first day of school Aug. 28 at Marvine Elementary School in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
Teacher Carolyn Vilet greets kindergartners on their first day of school Aug. 28 at Marvine Elementary School in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
Aimee Ketchum is a pediatric occupational therapist, owner of Aimee’s Babies and assistant professor of early child development at Cedar Crest College. (Contributed photo)

In most towns in America, now is the time for kindergarten registration for the 2024-25 school year. The class of 2037 is dutifully prepping and preparing to board those yellow buses or walk to their new schools and begin their careers in the K-12 world of education — or are they?

Before the pandemic, we experienced a national crisis in kindergarten readiness, with a staggering 60% of American children starting unprepared, according to . The pandemic has exacerbated this; a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that only 21.5% of children test ready for kindergarten in some areas of the country.

When children start school behind, they likely never catch up, making them less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be limited in any social and economic mobility. Due to child care deserts and exorbitant costs, many families do not have access to high-quality child care and preschool.

Birth to age 5 is a pivotal period in early child development when children’s brains are primed for learning more than any other point in their lifetime. Children who do not have adequate learning experiences during this time will never get that opportunity back.

Babies are our future thinkers, leaders and change-makers. We are all stakeholders in their healthy early development. Every dollar invested in a child before the age of 5, according to research from economist James Heckman, — and that return begins immediately.

Science, technology, engineering and math jobs are growing at a rate of more than 338%, and STEM workers are twice as likely to require bachelor’s or master’s degrees, the Pew Research Center found. The foundation for STEM skills is developed from birth to 5 as children develop a sense of curiosity and wonder; yet, we invest in STEM at the secondary level, missing critical opportunities. How are American children expected to compete in the global job force if they’re behind before they even start kindergarten?

Children need healthy attachments with parents for optimal social and emotional development, yet we don’t have a federal law guaranteeing a right to paid family or medical leave. A federally mandated paid leave for new parents is necessary so they can be the ones to care for and bond with their babies, and create secure attachments.

The Center for American Progress says 73% of private sector employees have absolutely no access to paid family leave, and the deleterious effects of this last a lifetime. Employers can take initiative to support parents by providing paid leave, on-site child care, child care vouchers or flex-time for parents. Data shows that this is great for employee retention.

We do not have time to wait for big policies to pass. Everyone needs to step up! Every single parent, grandparent, community member and tax payer is a stakeholder in early child development. We all have a vital role to play. Consider making donations to a preschool or child care facility; they will happily accept children’s books, food, games or monetary donations.

Children cannot succeed academically if they’re not prepared for their first day of kindergarten. K-12 school districts, local colleges and tech schools can provide education and resources to families of incoming children. Investing in Kindergarten readiness is an easy decision when we consider the incredible return on investment.

Children need safe places to live and outdoor spaces to play and explore. Consider volunteering to clean up a park or playground or adding educational play structures to places of business. Landlords should ensure that homes are safe, child-proof and lead-free (For every 5 micrograms of lead found in a child’s blood, their IQ drops by 1.5 points, .)

Every one of us can enrich the life of a young child. Law enforcement and firefighters can provide information on child safety. Health care systems, colleges, universities and tech schools can hold free parent-education sessions on early childhood development or provide resources to child care facilities and staff. Staff are grossly underappreciated and underpaid and any free continuing education or resources is always welcome.

In this Lehigh Valley area of “Meds and Eds” we all have a lot to contribute. Contractors can donate time and expertise to child care facilities, as overhead is usually the largest expense in poorly maintained buildings. Kindergarten readiness is not solely the responsibility of the parents — and we certainly should not expect our underpaid kindergarten teachers to pick up the slack.

Ready lawmakers, communities, school systems, and ready families lead to a ready child — and a ready child equals success for us all.

Aimee Ketchum is a pediatric occupational therapist, owner of Aimee’s Babies and assistant professor of early child development at Cedar Crest College.

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