Clinton Announces 5 Child-Care, Early-Years Initiatives

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Joining the national discussion about the importance of a child's first three years of life, President Clinton used a White House conference last week to announce five initiatives designed to improve services provided to youngsters.

Among them is a plan for the Department of Defense--known for its high-quality child-care programs--to share information and expertise with civilian child-care centers and providers.

The military's child-development centers and family-provider networks are considered model programs. Because of better training and higher pay, they have a much lower rate of staff turnover than typical child-care programs. Frequent, unannounced inspections also help the programs maintain high standards. ("Taking Care of Children the Army Way," April 16, 1997.)

"Children of people who aren't in the Navy are just as important to our future as the children who are," Mr. Clinton said during last Thursday's White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning.

Military child-care programs, he said, should share teaching materials, help civilian centers earn accreditation, and open up training courses to other local child-care providers.

Health Care, Head Start

Last week's all-day event brought together child-development experts, medical professionals, and directors of local programs to talk about the latest scientific findings on how children learn.

"Babies understand more than we have understood about them. Now we can begin to close the gap," the president said, adding that a second conference will be held next fall to focus specifically on the issue of child care.

In the second initiative, Mr. Clinton wants to extend health-care coverage to up to 5 million uninsured children by 2000 through expanding Medicaid coverage for poor children and providing coverage to children of parents who are between jobs. These goals are already part of his proposed federal budget for fiscal 1998.

He also wants to expand enrollment in the Early Head Start program by one-third next year. The program was created in 1994 to bring the education, health, and nutrition benefits of the federal Head Start preschool program to low-income pregnant women and children from birth to age 3.

And expanding on the administration's America Reads Challenge, which seeks to have all children reading by the end of the 3rd grade, "Ready, Set, Read" activity kits will be made available to families and caregivers of children from birth through age 5. The kits can be obtained by calling (800) USA-LEARN.

Lastly, the Department of Justice is establishing Safe Start, based on a New Haven, Conn., program that gives law-enforcement officers and other professionals information about early-childhood development and better prepares them to work with families whose young children are exposed to violence.

Research, particularly in the past 25 years, has shown that there are windows of opportunity for learning in the first months and years of life.

Critical Periods

During these "critical periods," connections are being made in a baby's brain that form the foundation for cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development, said Carla Shatz, a neurobiology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the presenters at the conference.

Most people thought that children's use of language began when they said their first word, but research has shown that by their sixth month, infants are "well on their way to cracking the language code," said Patricia Kuhl, the chairwoman of the speech and hearing sciences department at the University of Washington in Seattle.

These findings, the presenters said, point to the need for more informed parents, well-trained child-care professionals, and policies that allow parents to spend more time with their young children.

Successful programs were also highlighted during the conference.

The Kellogg Corp., based in Battle Creek, Mich., for example, is using print and broadcast advertising, direct mail, and community forums to spread information about the importance of early brain development to parents and child-care providers in the community.

And in San Antonio, a parent-support program called Avance--a Spanish word for advancing--is teaching parents of infants and toddlers about child growth and development and connecting those families to other social services.

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