These last few weeks, the 8,000 members of the Class of ‘25 took their first tentative steps along their journey into school, toward high school graduation and beyond. Today, they’re just five years of age, and are learning about cubbies and backpacks, kindergarten schedules, and successfully navigating naptime. But in little more than a dozen years, these same kids will be newly minted high school graduates. They will worry about college acceptance letters, and, not long after, will find themselves in new roles in our community: as the emergency personnel we depend on, as the teachers we entrust with our own children and grandchildren, the homeowners maintaining our neighborhoods, and our next generation of parents, raising children of their own.
A half-century of research tells us that it’s not too soon to be thinking about these distant outcomes. In fact, the environments in which these children have already spent their infant, toddler, and pre-school years matter, not only today in terms of their school readiness, but also in years to come in terms of their academic achievement, and still later when they are adults, when these early experiences will correspond to patterns of employment, health, and even their own parenting decisions. This connection between early childhood and later life outcomes is the reason that many economists advise communities to invest heavily in the developmental well-being of their youngest children.
In Memphis, the Class of ’25 arrives at kindergarten from very different homes and families. A third of these children have moved frequently, others will have known one home and neighborhood their whole lives. Some of these children have spent their earliest years watched over by large numbers of caring adults, including parents and grandparents, relatives and neighbors. Others have had far fewer caring adults in their lives. Four in ten new kindergartners have attended early care and education centers recognized for their quality, while the larger share of these new kindergartners have had no high-quality early educational experience.
These differences matter. We see this for example in the size of children’s vocabularies when they reach kindergarten. Vocabulary development is a key dimension of school readiness, and children learn about language as it is used around them. In a home where parents have large vocabularies and where they engage children in conversations, children develop much larger vocabularies. Researchers have found profound differences in the size of the vocabularies of children even as young as three years of age that are the result of differences in the language environment in their early lives, and these differences will strongly influence their cognitive scores when they reach school and their likelihood of becoming early readers.
In a similar way, beginning kindergartners in Memphis come from homes with very different attitudes toward reading. The research is clear that a child born into a family of readers enjoys an advantage when it comes to learning to read. When adults read for fun, when they read aloud to their children, when they keep books and magazines at home, and when they take their children to the library, their children are more likely to have an easier time learning to read. For one in three families in Memphis, however, reading is a challenge for parents, and they are much less likely to read with young children. This matters because early reading skills become the foundation for a growing range of learning skills over the elementary grades. This is why Memphis City Schools rightly considers reading at grade level by fourth grade a key milestone on the pathway to academic success.
Some of the most significant differences in the school readiness of the Class of ’25 have more to do with their early social and emotional – rather than cognitive – development. Neuroscientists tell us that toxic stress can be detrimental to the optimal brain development of young children. When a child is exposed to high levels of fear, anger, violence, or neglect in early childhood, the parts of their brains that respond to fear, anger and uncertainty become stronger. In a town where half of families with young children confront poverty, the stresses associated with a chaotic and uncertain home life have been significant factors in the early childhoods of many children entering school this fall.
Fortunately, many children entering kindergarten this fall can count on the protection of their families, their communities, and the social and governmental safety-net from the worst of these threats. Here again, the science is clear: when children are protected from toxic stress they are most likely to develop the regions of the brain that govern their levels of self-control, patience, ability to listen carefully, and even their feelings of curiosity and love of learning. These dimensions of school readiness are strongly related to later achievement and life-time well-being, and their abundance would be our wish for all of the children in the Class of ’25.