Studies have consistently underscored the influence early childhood education has on future health outcomes, and the earlier the better—data shows that children who demonstrate the skills necessary to succeed in kindergarten are more likely to earn better grades, have higher high school graduation rates and demonstrate fewer behavioral problems.
Traditionally, not all children have the same opportunities to engage in these crucial preschool and early education programs. This long-standing problem has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in plummeting preschool participation rates that disproportionately affect minority communities.
"We know that children of color tend not to test as well in kindergarten readiness assessments as their white peers—and the pandemic brought that into further light," says Mary Kay Irwin, Ed.D., senior director of school health for Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "We have to focus on affected neighborhoods to figure out what we can do to create an equitable experience for children to enter kindergarten ready to learn."
Training the perfect teacher
At Nationwide Children's, this approach includes an initiative run through its Community Education division, the Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK) program. SPARK has helped hundreds of children in underserved communities over the last decade prepare for kindergarten by empowering parents to take a more active role in their child's preschool education.
Each month, a SPARK teacher—called a parent partner—visits the child's home with materials to teach math, reading and writing. The visits include training for parents on how to use the tools and foster their child's learning.
"The strategy here is to really teach the caregiver to be that child's first and forever teacher," says Marcie Rehmar, director of Community Education.
Program retooled in face of COVID-19
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated safety protocols necessitated changes to the home-based program. The SPARK team rewrote the curriculum for virtual adaptation and delivered the learning materials to family homes but conducted the training visits and administered the pre- and post-test tools virtually.
It was important than ever to maintain the program during the pandemic to keep the children on schedule during the extended at-home period, according to the program leaders. "At every office visit with my families, we talk about what they can do at home with their kids in their free time together as a family to build their educational, social and emotional skills in those critical early years," says Sara Bode, M.D. "When they are thinking about those at home, they become habits and help kids continue to build on their skills and get to the next developmental level."
Education is vital to pediatric health
Bode says it's important for health care providers to prioritize educational progress along with more traditional benchmarks of patient well-being. "Are they healthy in all aspects, including physical, mental, social-emotional and academics?" Bode says. "Kindergarten readiness and high school graduation rates are two examples of things we are measuring for kids to see if our patient population is healthy."
"Kindergarten readiness is critical. If we keep you physically healthy but you get to school and you're not ready to learn, struggle academically and don't graduate high school, what is your ultimate outcome?" says Bode. "Pediatricians and health care systems need to focus our attention on education as equally as we do physical health."