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Be Well: Investing in Children Improves Health

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 7:35 AM

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Rebeka Dorman, director of Invest in Children

When Cuyahoga County Council voted last week on how to spend money raised by the health and human services levy, they boosted the funding for an initiative called Invest in Children. ideastream health reporter Sarah Jane Tribble joins Morning Edition Host Rick Jackson to talk about that program and explain how tax dollars are at work.

Among the agencies receiving a funding boost after taxpayers approved a health and human services levy last month, is Invest in Children.

The agency will get an additional $2.5 million during the next two years. Two million in funding will pay for more children to attend the county’s universal preschools. Another $500,000 will pay for early childhood mental health services, according to the county amendment.

“Brain development during the first five years of life is explosive. And you begin to see the differences emerge of children living in disadvantaged circumstances versus higher income, more supportive families by 18 months. You start to see vocabulary differences that just get wider and wider by three years of age,” says Invest in Children Director Rebekah Dorman.

Research supports approach

Doctors and researchers have discovered that a child’s brain begins learning - not just growing - but learning while in the womb, Dorman says. Newer brain science allows experts to “see inside the brain” and see what’s going on, she added.

Several studies have supported a focus on early childhood, including the federally-funded national study called “From Neurons to Neighborhoods” , which was published in 2000.

In Cleveland, Case Western Reserve University is leading long-term research that tracks children from preschool to third grade.

“High quality in terms of structural quality, in terms of how child care teachers interact with kids, the structure of the environment, the combination of free play - all those things that we know are signature aspects of quality - when you put those together, you show the kind of developmental gains while the child is in preschool and that you dramatically increase their opportunity to be ready at arrival in kindergarten,” says Robert Fischer, co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case. 

Both mental and physical health impacted

In addition, a growing body of research also focuses what happens to the child’s physical health if the brain is exposed to a negative environment. Dorman referenced a study called ACE - Adverse Childhood Experiences - that looked at data collected on 17,000 kids in California.

One of the interesting things about this study, Dorman said, is that it includes children from all backgrounds - not just those are in poorer communities.

“And it clearly demonstrated that even in a population that we don’t think of as disadvantaged when there are lots of adverse childhood experiences - so it could be substance abuse or mental illness in the family, um etc. that the child was exposed to when they were young - that it did affect their physical health in terms of heart disease,” Dorman says.

The findings were consistent regardless of whether the kids had weight issues or not or if there was smoking in the home. In other words, a bad emotional environment - a lack of nurturing - caused physical damage.

Additional Information

To learn more about Invest in Children, visit their web site here.

To learn more about “Neurons to Neighborhoods” and the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, go here.

Access the ACE - Adverse Childhood Experiences - study here

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