This issue of The Urban Child Institute’s Research to Policy links the quality of early childhood care and education to the developmental well-being of children. The first few years of life are a period of intense brain development. This period is vital, for example, in early language development, in the formation of pre-reading and pre-math skills, in symbol and pattern recognition, and in the early development of emotional control and social skills that lead to school success.

During these years, every aspect of a child’s life presents learning opportunities and lays the foundation for their social, emotional and cognitive development, and – in turn – for their level of school readiness. High-quality early care and education leads to later academic achievement, high school graduation, avoidance of risky adolescent behaviors, and success on into adulthood.

What does “high quality early care and education” mean? I suspect that to a large number of families in Memphis the answer is simple: “Ms. Dominique.”

As a young bride, Dominique left her native France to follow her American husband to Tennessee. For the next 33 years, she has been a teacher in early childhood classrooms, most often working with three- and four-year-olds. The children in her classrooms have come from families who may look very different in terms of their incomes, ethnicities, and family structures,  but these families are fundamentally alike on one key dimension: They  want a safe, affordable, accessible, developmentally-appropriate, enriching and loving environment for their young children while they are at work.

What is Ms. Dominique’s secret? To find out, I started calling parents who, over the years, have entrusted her with their children.  It seems to me that their stories are united in their gratitude that Ms. Dominique not only saw their children as individuals, but that she delighted in their individuality.

No doubt, to a 3-year-old meeting her for the first time, Ms. Dominique can be daunting. She runs a tight ship, and her classroom is calm and (relatively) quiet. There is a routine to the day, and both children and parents thrive on this routine. Parent-teacher conferences are frequent, and often take place during nap-time, and in murmuring voices (and yes your child will nap when she is at school … even if she won’t at home).

One of Ms. Dominique’s rules is that 3-year-olds can walk on their own and do not need to be picked up. (I suspect this rule stems from chronic knee problems.) But there has seldom been an afternoon when parents have arrived to pick up their children and haven’t found a child smugly riding on her hip. Dominique also has a rightly deserved reputation for being able to identify a child with a fever before they cross the classroom threshold … well before crafty fathers are able to negotiate drop-off and make it out the door and to work.

Undeniably, Ms. Dominique has made “going to school” magical for three- and four-year-olds for the last 33 years. I think this is largely due to the fact that she takes delight in the oversized personalities of young children.

How so?

One father told me of his son’s steadfast refusal to get dressed in the morning. Frank saw no particular reason to hurry to pull on clothes or leave home. Dominique asked this dad why they were consistently late for “Morning Meeting.” Dad explained the situation and she said, “When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. Bring him in whatever he’s wearing … he can get dressed here.” The next morning, Dad announced they were leaving in 10 minutes … no response… 5 minutes … no movement. When it came time to go, dad scooped up son and a sack of clothes, and deposited him – in PJ bottoms and nothing else – in the middle of the classroom. “Frank,” said Ms. Dominique, “you may want to get dressed.” According to his dad, for the next ten years, Frank has managed to get himself dressed and out the door pretty much on time.

Another family explained her magic this way: Their child loved to wear his yellow rain boots and waterproof fireman’s coat to school every day … year round. Dominique watched this for a few days and then simply asked him to please be their official weatherman. His duties included checking the weather in the morning paper before coming to school, and then delivering a weather report to the class each morning meeting. “They bonded,” explained his parents, “around the weather.”

How do we quantify this type of knowing how to interact with young children?

Dominique says she has no secret. She simply wants to be there: “If you work with each child as an individual, you get to experience that ah-ha moment when you realize they are getting it …

“I get a kick out of seeing the world through the children’s eyes. All kids are thirsting to learn, and it’s up to parents and teachers to respond with what they need. Children are so eager to learn … and if parents and teachers work together to give them what they need, how can you lose?

Childcare is an American problem. Today, most families with children need someone to help care for their kids. Across the country, three in five mothers of young children are in the labor force. Based on census data, our best estimate is that 85% of children 0-5 in Memphis spend part of each week in care outside the home.

For many children, this means going to a preschool or to a child care center. For many other children, it means spending time with grandparents, with neighbors, or in family-care homes. As a general rule, families are doing their best to pull resources together to provide childcare for their youngest children while parents are at work.

While many care settings are wonderful, the quality of care is also wildly uneven. Some settings are licensed by the State, have low staff turnover, a high staff to child ratio, and developmentally appropriate toys and games. Some programs are guided by rich curricular philosophies (think of Montessori and Reggio-Emilia programs), are appropriately structured, and are committed to teacher training. Some settings provide warm breakfasts and lunches, clean and dry soiled clothes, and have regular time each day for reading, art, play, and music. But all of these dimensions of quality come at a cost, which too often puts them out of reach of low-income families.

Tennessee is a leader in the effort to ensure and support quality in early care through the state’s star-rating system, in which a center must adhere to a rigorous set of health, safety and staffing and training guidelines in order to earn a 3-star ranking. Meanwhile, a handful of center-based programs in Memphis also have earned national accreditation through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), widely considered the gold-standard measure of quality early care and education, with rigorous teacher training and curriculum standards.

Still, the quality of childcare in Memphis is quite uneven, and teachers like Ms. Dominique are few and far between. The result is that too many of the young children who would most benefit from high-quality care are unlikely to ever experience it.

We hope this issue of Research to Policy helps to make it clear that the best investment we can make as a community is in the earliest years of life, certainly including investments in high-quality early care and education programs for our youngest children.