The National Governors’ Association, signaling its growing interest in the area of child development, plans to help states develop ways of assessing children’s developmental problems at their earliest stages.
The N.G.A. move would seek to broaden the states’ child-development concerns to include prenatal and infant care, on the grounds that catching developmental problems at those stages could prevent costly and destructive social problems in the future.
The N.G.A. effort was discussed here this month as more than 200 professionals in health care, education, human-services administration, and state government met to discuss the impact of the first 60 months of life on a child’s later development.
According to Gov. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, chairman of the N.G.A.'s human-resources committee, which will direct the new effort, the two-day conference was “a first step” in formulating the association’s plans in the area. It was convened, he said, to demonstrate the value of early-intervention services in the first five years of life and to discuss effective strategies for delivering such services.
Entitled “Focus on the First 60 Months,” the Feb. 6-7 conference presented findings from the growing body of evidence suggesting that intervention programs designed for at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds may actually come too late in a child’s life to be effective.
Participants were told that targeting the child’s first 60 months--and even the prenatal stages of development--would greatly increase the odds of reducing or eliminating serious developmental problems in later years.
Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, citing the critical importance of the early years, said that the best programs to deal with such problems as teen-age pregnancy, infant mortality, crime, and poverty are those that “try to prevent these problems from occurring.”
Early intervention alone will not “solve every problem entirely,” the Governor said, but could “make a pretty big dent” in many through prevention.
“If we prudently spend a relatively small sum of money now, we can prevent a vast number of illnesses and diseases that afflict our people,” he said. “Or we can ignore the wisdom of prevention and pay a vastly higher cost at a later date. We can pay now or we can pay later.”
‘Just Too Late’
Irving Harris, chairman of the executive committee of the Illinois-based Pittway Corporation who has financially supported such early-childhood-education initiatives as the Erikson Institute, warned that even such successful early-intervention programs as Project Head Start may be too late for some children.
“Head Start was designed to prevent school failure,” he said. But for a third of the children who enroll in the federally funded program, he said, “Head Start is just too late” to erase existing deficiencies.
The most rapid period of brain growth occurs in the first year of life. Mr. Ranis said, and by the end of the third year the foundations for language development have already been laid. “That’s why we must start much earlier,” he said.
He urged that the nation not continue to “pay lip-service” to preschool programs for 3- to 5-year-olds when research shows that there are significant benefits in starting earlier.
“We have a lot of work to do to stop the cycle of poverty,” Mr. Harris said. “Prevention has to be the emphasis.”
Charles Mahan, medical director of the Florida Maternal and Child Health Program, stressed the cost-effectiveness of preventive intervention. And he pointed to prenatal care as “the ultimate attempt at prevention.”
Dr. Mahan cited the link between low-birthweight babies--which account for about 7 percent of all U.S. births each year--and later problems. Infants weighing less than five and a half pounds have a significantly lower chance of surviving to their first birthday than those born at higher weights, he said.
In addition, premature babies often exhibit developmental problems in their early years, he said, which I can lead to education and employment problems later on.
Such difficulties often result in a vicious cycle of poverty and low self-esteem, he said. If a teen-ager with such problems becomes pregnant, he said, there is a high statistical probability that she will give birth to another low-birthweight baby, and the cycle will begin anew.
‘Urgent and Important’
Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, calling early intervention and prevention “the most urgent and important social issue in the United States of America in this decade,” urged states to push for programs to help women and children.
“Medicaid must be made available to every single child all the way up to the federal poverty line without exception,” he said. “The Women, Infants, and Children program ought to be turned into an entitlement.”
And, noting that children’s care is an issue ''that crosses every segment of society,” he urged participants to “go out there with zeal and passion, grab your governor by the scruff of the neck, and make him define an agenda” for children’s concerns.
‘Build,’ Not ‘Repair’
Gov Martha Layne Collins of Kentucky, who recently established an office of children in her state, noted that “the value of early-childhood-development activities rests on the theory that it is easier to build than to repair.”
Every dollar spent for early-childhood education, she said, reduce later expenditure for remediation, dropout prevention, and adult education. Every dollar spent on prenatal care reduces later expenditure for health care and Medicaid. And every dollar spent on instilling a sense of self-worth in children reduces later expenditure for protective services, welfare, and prisons.
“In Kentucky and in the rest of the nation,” the Governor said, “early-childhood programs hold more promise for the future than anything else we might undertake. They are a way to break the cycle--the cycle of undervaluing education, the cycle of spouse and child abuse, the cycle of inadequate nutrition and poor health, the cycle of poverty, the cycle of low self-esteem and low expectation.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 1986 edition of Education Week