When educators talk about critical windows, they often mean the preschool years, when young children grow rapidly and interventions can make a big difference in their readiness for school. But a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation highlights another critical education window: ages 18 to 24, when education help for young parents can likewise help their children.
“Young adults are in an important developmental stage. Their brains are not fully formed yet; they are still learning basic capabilities around planning and balancing tasks to help them take on adult responsibilities. It’s considered the next most important stage—behind the birth to [age] 3 period, which is where most of their children are,” said Rosa Maria Castañeda, the study author and a senior associate at the Casey Foundation’s Center for Economic Opportunity.
“We’ve seen some tremendous success in the reduction of young parenthood,” Castañeda said, “but as we ran the numbers, we realized there are still 6 million young parents with young children today, and ... the numbers really screamed out to us that there are two generations at risk.”
The rates of pregnancies among young teenagers have been on a steady decline, by more than 40 percent since the mid-1990s, according to federal statistics.
But pregnancies among older teens and college-age adults have not fallen as quickly, and their families are likely to be at a career and education disadvantage compared to their peers: The study found 18 percent of parents ages 18 to 24 have not earned a high school diploma, and more than 60 percent of them work full-time. And parents’ disadvantages can dog their children. Nearly 70 percent of children of teenage and young adult parents live in low-income households, and they are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as children of older parents.
That’s long been the case in Oklahoma, where 74 percent of families led by teenagers and young adults fall in the low-income category. Alisa Bell, the founder of the nonprofit Just About Mothers Excelling in School, or JAMES, in Tulsa, Okla., developed the program based on her own experience struggling to complete college after becoming a teenage parent in 1979. The group provides “education doulas"—based on the traditional guides for pregnant women and young mothers—who help new teenage mothers and fathers develop academic and career goals, and find the housing, transportation, and child care they need.
The Casey report found dual-generation programs are most effective when they pair high-quality and flexible early child care and preschool for children with strong mentoring, education, and training for parents.
“We are seeing a tremendous amount of financial insecurity, significant education and work gaps in that age group” of parents under age 24, Castañeda said, “but it also points to an opportunity to reach them. Young parents are highly adaptable; they are highly motivated to do well for themselves and their kids.”
Bell agreed, noting Tulsa has developed partnerships among groups like Bell’s, municipal social services, and the school district’s Better Tomorrows program, which helps pregnant and parenting students stay in school.
“For such a long time, we have focused on prevention [of teenage parenthood], and even though we already had this large population who were already young parents, the focus remained on prevention,” Bell said. “There has been a huge push in the city and state to change those demographics. I’ve seen the change in approach and the conversation around that issue. Now I’m not the lone voice at the table.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.