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'Emotional Foundation' for Children Urged

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Millions of children are not gaining the "emotional foundation'' in the critical years from birth to age 3 to succeed in school, a report released last week concludes.

The study synthesizes some 40 years of research documenting the significance of attitudes children form in their earliest years and argues that the nation has failed to translate that knowledge into policy.

It recommends several steps to help support infants and families and maintains that failure to take action will doom even more to failure and further hamper the nation's economic competitiveness.

Zero to Three/The National Center for Clinical Infant Programs--a private, nonprofit organization that operates in partnership with practitioners, federal agencies, and foundations concerned with infant care--prepared the report.

The study was presented last week at a news conference by a panel of board members, including physicians, child-care specialists, and businesspeople who have played key roles in early-intervention projects.

"We have good scientific evidence'' demonstrating how and when infants and young children develop "core competencies'' that make for school success, said Dr. Stanley I. Greenspan, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University's school of medicine.

"We now know that most of a child's capacity for doing schoolwork is well in place before a child is 3,'' said Irving B. Harris, the chairman of the executive committee of the Pittway Corporation in Chicago. "But we're not doing much about it.''

That 'Hangdog Look'

The report offers vignettes and examples to illustrate how various parenting styles and differences in the way babies are approached and perceive the world shape their emotional health and expectations.

"We can tell by 8 months of age whether a baby expects to succeed or to fail by the way he or she approaches a task'' such as placing two blocks together, said Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston.

A baby used to encouragement will perform the task with a "bright-eyed look of expectancy'' anticipating adult approval, he said.

On the other hand, he said, an infant with "an untreated learning disability, or who comes from an environment too chaotic or too hopeless to reinforce in him a feeling of success,'' may listlessly start the task and offer a "hangdog look'' indicating he expects failure and disapproval.

Such children could be the "precursors'' to more episodes like the Los Angeles riots unless more positive models of early intervention are developed, Dr. Brazelton warned.

Edward F. Zigler, a professor of psychology at Yale University and a founder of the federal Head Start program, cited the long-term social benefits of high-quality early-childhood programs, while Mr. Harris and Bernard Levy, a former president of Counterparts Inc., a manufacturer of ladies clothing in New York City, warned of the economic consequences if children lack the "emotional health'' to cultivate problem-solving and other complex skills.

Other Recommendations

Study recommendations include:

  • Offer universal health coverage; expand prevention-oriented health-care programs; and improve mechanisms to identify and treat health and developmental problems.
  • Provide "time for unhurried caring'' through family-leave legislation--the group urges at least six months of job-protected leave for new parents--and policies to bolster child-care standards and salaries, ease parents' day-care costs, and promote "continuity of care.''
  • Promote responsive caregiving through parenting education and family-support programs and train health, infant, and child-care professionals to work closely with parents.
  • Provide safe environments for children and help alleviate child poverty through child tax credits and child-support assurance.
  • Help families with special needs through specialized and integrated services addressing such issues as mental health, child abuse, foster care, and early intervention.

Copies of "Heart Start: The Emotional Foundations of School Readiness'' are available by calling (800) 544-0155.

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