toddlers

Prioritizing Early On

November 20, 2015 – Last week I attended the Early On Michigan Conference and had the opportunity to present to Early On providers and families on how they can get engaged in policy advocacy.  I also got to learn more about the great state-level work and the work local Early On providers are doing to bolster the system. Given that improving access to needed early intervention services through Early On is a priority of Michigan’s Children, it was a great opportunity for me to learn directly from the folks working in the field and to figure out how we can be most helpful.  Here were some of my key takeaways.

First, like any other group of providers serving children and families, this group is very passionate about the kids and families they serve.  In my workshop on policy advocacy (that was competing against other amazing workshops focused on things like parent engagement, trauma experienced by young children, language acquisition, and other incredibly important topics), attendees ranged from folks who had good relationships with their elected officials to folks who had never spoken to an elected official before.  And all were engaged and eager to learn how to build those important relationships to improve public policies on behalf of the families and children they serve.  I am confident that at least a couple of legislators have heard from their constituents since then on the needs of Early On.

Second, I learned a lot about Medicaid in one of the workshops I attended on reimbursement for Early On services.  In the room, there was lack of understanding among services providers of how this can be done most effectively and efficiently, and the workshop was incredibly informative to all those who attended.  It reaffirmed Michigan’s Children’s priority, supported by the Early On Michigan Foundation, to push for a study on how we can better maximize Medicaid resources to help offset costs of early intervention services.

And finally, it continues to become more and more evident that many challenges with the Early On system exist due to the two-tiered eligibility and funding structures.  This results in young children with moderate developmental delays – the majority of Early On children in our state – often receiving inadequate intervention services to address those delays compared to children with more significant delays.  The state must take brave efforts to look at ways to streamline eligibility for this program so that all children and their families can receive the services they need for optimal development.  Not only will this improve outcomes for kids, but it can also reduce the special education rolls in preschool and k-12.  You can learn more about the challenges to the Early On system resulting from this tiered eligibility system in our Issues for Michigan’s Children brief.

This program and the children and families it serves are too important to continue to ignore, as evidenced by these incredible family stories, and we are not sitting idly by.  Michigan’s Children and the Early On Foundation recently submitted a sign-on letter to the Governor requesting he begin investing state funds starting in fiscal year 2017 to address the significant financing challenges that Early On faces.  The letter was signed by numerous entities and stakeholders including the majority of Intermediate School Districts who are responsible for this program.  Over the next year, Michigan’s Children will be working closely with the Early On Foundation and others to promote the need for state investment for Early On while simultaneously working to identify ways to maximize Medicaid funds and to begin addressing eligibility challenges.  We hope you’ll join us in these efforts to ensure all families with babies and toddlers have the services they need to thrive.

-Mina Hong

Better Supporting Early On Michigan

March 24, 2015 – This is the second blog about an opportunity that Michigan’s Children had this month to strategize action around some very important services that touch the lives of families with babies and toddlers.  In partnership with the Early Childhood Investment Corporation and the Early On Michigan Foundation, Michigan’s Children organized a session to bring together allies and stakeholders to begin to build improvements to the Early On system.  Early On is our state’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – Part C program that provides early intervention services to families with young children from birth to age three who have developmental delays or disabilities.  Currently in Michigan, the main source of funding for Early On comes from the federal government, which is sorely inadequate to provide appropriate services.  The intent of the session earlier this month was for participants to gain a shared understanding of IDEA Part C and those federal requirements, Early On in Michigan and its ability to appropriately serve eligible children and their families, and to begin identifying opportunities to bolster the system.

The Early On session was one of the first times in recent years that a room of state-level early childhood advocates, staff from the Michigan Departments of Education and Community Health, and local Early On providers had the opportunity to talk about how to advance that system.  It was clear that folks were glad to be having the conversation because it’s not often that you get a room of 45 busy individuals staying to the last minute of a 3-hour long meeting and even sticking around afterwards to continue some conversations in smaller groups.  It was clear from that session that ensuring young children and their families can access appropriate early intervention services across the state was a high priority for those from inside and outside the Early On system.  It was also clear that adequate and equitable services are currently not available and that this must be remedied with additional state investment.  While the group heard from one local community about their fairly robust early intervention services being supported by a sizeable local mileage, local support for Early On varies widely across the state with many communities having no local investment to support early intervention.  And given that there is no state investment for the majority of Early On eligible children and their families, the significant disparities in the adequacy of services available continues to persist.

One of the action steps identified by this group was for the state to look into maximizing federal Medicaid funds to support aspects of the Early On system – much like many other states do but not in Michigan.  While all kids who receive Early On services aren’t Medicaid recipients, a good portion of them are, making this resource a viable option to support some intervention services such as physical or occupational therapy.  Michigan’s Children is leading efforts to explore this option.    However, drawing down Medicaid funds isn’t possible without a match, reinforcing the need for a state appropriation for Early On.  Michigan’s Children in partnership with the Early On Michigan Foundation and others will continue to pursue this route in the FY2016 budget being debated and into the future.

Learn more about Early On by reading our Issues for Michigan’s Children publication.

-Mina Hong

Join the #InvestInKids Twitter Rally Today

September 10, 2014 – I try to play the social media game but I honestly feel like I can’t keep up.  I’m just beginning to dabble in the use of #hashtags and still struggle to get my message across in 140 characters or less.  What can I say?  I’m a policy person… trying to get something down to one-page is hard enough!  But, I do recognize that social media can be an effective strategy to move public policy priorities.  And to that end, I urge you to fight any possible social media hesitations – or embrace your love for social media – and participate in today’s #InvestinKids Strong Start Coalition Twitter Campaign from 2-3pm or anytime today if you’re unavailable during that hour.  The purpose of the Twitter storm is to let members of Congress – and I would add our state legislators and candidates for public office – know that investing in young children is a top priority.

The Strong Start Coalition is focusing on expanding access to early childhood opportunities – an issue that Michigan’s Children is prioritizing this election season via the Sandbox Party.  With our state’s significant focus on preschool over the past two years, it’s now time to focus on our littlest Michigan residents.  We must expand funding for programs that serve young children prenatally through age three through a variety of evidence-based services including home visiting, early intervention for developmental delays, and high quality child care.  These are all parts of Michigan’s early childhood system – particularly Early On Early intervention – that have received significantly less attention than preschool.

Michigan’s Children is glad that the importance of home visiting has expanded over the past several years in Michigan, with some increases in state and federal funding for evidence-based home visiting services and through the Governor’s Partners for Success opportunity.  And, we’re glad that the need to increase access to high quality child care is being worked on by the Administration through Michigan’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant.  But I would argue that both of these parts of the early childhood system still have quite a ways to go to ensure access to all families who are eligible for these services.  At the same time, Early On continues to be left behind.  An Auditor General’s report that came out last year highlighted some significant challenges with the Early On system – many which are the result of historic underfunding of the Early On system for decades.  In a nutshell, opportunities for our youngest Michigan residents continue to fall far behind.

I hope you will join many other early childhood advocates across the nation today by participating in the #InvestinKids Twitter action.  In addition to targeting our members of Congress, please consider tailoring your message to candidates running for public office.

To learn more about Michigan’s Children’s election efforts, visit www.michigansandboxparty.org.

-Mina Hong

Resolve to Better Serve Michigan’s Youngest

January 8, 2014 – As gym membership purchases skyrocket and cookie sales take a hit, there’s nothing like the start to a new year to have folks think about all the hopes and wishes they have for a new year.  While I’m not a new year’s resolution kind of gal, I do have some hopes and wishes for young children in Michigan.  And 2014 is a year where much progress can be made with the help of your advocacy efforts as well as Michigan’s recently awarded Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant.

At Michigan’s Children, we’ve long been advocates for the state’s young people who face the greatest barriers to opportunities that promote education and life success – children who are disproportionately disadvantaged like children of color and children from low-income families.  And we know the greatest avenue to success is to focus on prevention efforts to mitigate the disparities that emerge early and can persist over a lifetime.  As a state, we’ve clearly made great progress in this arena as evidenced by the significant expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program.  However, we know we have to start before preschool since disparities in cognitive development – which leads to the achievement gap – can emerge as young as nine months of age.  When we provide services for young children prenatally through age three coupled with a high quality preschool program like the Great Start Readiness Program, we can make significant strides towards ensuring all children are prepared for kindergarten while preventing the achievement gap.

As we ramp up preschool services for four-year-olds, Michigan must expand services to families with very young children prenatally through age three. Two key opportunities for bolstering services for this population are to strengthen the subsidized child care system and to expand evidence-based home visiting services.  In essence, ensuring that very young children have the best environments for their learning and development in the two places where they spend their days – at home and in child care while their parents work.  At the same time that the federal government has improved access to home visiting by increasing available funding, Michigan has bolstered the quality of home visiting services by mandating that publicly funded programs be evidence-based or promising programs.  Now, the state must also take responsibility for expanding access to these services since they still reach only a small fraction of the families who are eligible.

Additionally, our subsidized child care system continues to be one of the worst in the nation with woefully low reimbursement rates that are paid on an hourly basis.  And, with infant and toddler care being the most expensive, accessing high quality (read: 5-star rated programs in Great Start to Quality) is next to impossible with the current subsidy structure.  But opportunities to strengthen the child care system exist – especially with Michigan’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) Grant award.  With our RTT-ELC grant, Michigan will focus on bolstering child care services to the most challenged families.  For infants and toddlers, a scholarship will be available to families in high needs communities, which will allow more young children access to the highest quality care that promotes healthy development and eliminates the school readiness gap.  While these scholarships are a great model that Michigan can replicate across the state, the RTT-ELC grant will only provide scholarships to a small fraction of the thousands of infants and toddlers who currently receive subsidized care.

More broadly, Michigan will use its RTT-ELC grant funding to provide incentives for more child care providers to participate in Great Start to Quality so that parents can be better informed about the quality of care they select for their children.  And, Michigan will make a concerted effort to support both licensed and unlicensed home-based child care providers to increase the quality of their care.  This is a significant step in the right direction since we know that many families – particularly families with very young children – opt for home-based care for many reasons including affordability, trust, cultural alignment, and convenience.  These opportunities will support parental choice so that parents can make the best possible decision about the care they purchase for their children.

While we have a ways to go to better serve Michigan’s youngest children, I am encouraged by the efforts we have already made and the plans we have laid out in our RTT-ELC grant.  While it would be overly optimistic to say that I hope the state’s “new year’s resolution” is to provide all young children prenatally through age five with the high quality services they need to be prepared for kindergarten, 2014 will prove to be a year where we can make great strides towards this goal.  Won’t you join us in these efforts?  The Governor will be unveiling his state budget proposal for the next fiscal year in February and shortly thereafter, the Legislature will be building the state’s budget.  Now is the time to talk to your legislators about how we can better support Michigan’s struggling children even before they reach preschool – by increasing access to evidence-based home visiting services and expanding and embedding opportunities available through the RTT-ELC into state policy.  2014 must be the year that we make significant strides so that all of Michigan’s most challenged young children can have access to opportunities that will help them thrive.

Learn more about Michigan’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant on the Michigan Office of Great Start website.

-Mina Hong

Collaborating for a Great Start, Great Investment, and Great Future

Last month, the Michigan Department of Education – Office of Great Start (OGS) released its much anticipated report Great Start, Great Investment, Great Future: The Plan for Early Learning and Development in Michigan.  This report provides a clear road map on creating a comprehensive, coordinated early childhood system in Michigan that incorporates key principles – principles that Michigan’s Children strongly agrees with – as follows:

  • Children and families are the highest priority.
  • Parents and communities must have a voice in building and operating the system.
  • The children with the greatest needs must be served first.
  • Invest early.
  • Quality matters.
  • Efficiencies must be identified and implemented.
  • Opportunities to coordinate and collaborate must be identified and implemented.

Based on these key principles, Michigan has A LOT of work to do to build a system that serves the most challenged young children and their families to ensure a great start in life.  As a state, we made historic progress by significantly expanding access to evidence-based preschool through the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP).  However, much work remains – particularly around the principles of investing early and serving children with the greatest needs first.  And as the report clearly lays out, one clear path for this is to expand programs and services for our young children prenatally through age three through increased investment and improved coordination and collaboration starting at the state level.

Rather than repeat myself, please check-out this guest column that I co-wrote with Scott Menzel, Superintendent of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and Chair of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrator’s Early Childhood Committee.  Our guest column praises Michigan’s expansion of GSRP and highlights the work left undone to support Michigan’s youngest learners.  It also provides a brief overview of some key programs that could maximize Michigan’s GSRP investment by supporting young children before they reach preschool.  As the OGS report states, “[r]esearchers have found that return on investment is highest for investments made when children are youngest.  Unfortunately, public investment is lowest for children from birth through age 4…” and particularly for birth through age three.  But more money may not be enough to get more children prepared for school.

The OGS, Department of Community Health (DCH), Department of Human Services (DHS), policymakers, parents, providers, and community members have a lot of work to do.  The OGS report highlights the need to improve coordination and collaboration across sectors to increase efficiencies and maximize services to families with young children.  This couldn’t be closer to the truth when talking about young children prenatally through age three – these services span across departments and agencies and some efforts are already underway to improve collaboration and coordination.  Locally, it’s seen through the Great Start Collaboratives and at the state level, it’s seen through the Great Start Systems Team and the Governor’s People, Health and Education Executive Group that includes the directors of DCH, DHS, and Civil Rights in addition to the state superintendent.  However, these efforts have not yet been able to transform Michigan’s early childhood system into the coordinated, collaborative system needed to best serve Michigan’s most challenged children and families.

As we focus on increasing investments for programs and services that support young children prenatally through age three in the fiscal year 2015 budget, we must also include incentives for the state and for local communities to continue to work towards a more comprehensive and coordinated system.  Some local communities are already doing this well, and there’s always room for improvement.  Educating legislators now about best practices to coordinate and collaborate across systems will ensure that they are prepared to continue conversations to strengthen and transform Michigan’s early childhood system in the next budget cycle.

-Mina Hong

We Shouldn’t Treat Preschool Like Valentine’s Day

Ahh Valentine’s Day.  The day of love.  The day when flower shops, candy shops, and restaurants do remarkably well.  But I must admit I’m not a big fan of Valentine’s Day.  Sure, I love reminding my loved ones how much I care about them on this day, but I also find it rather silly to single out one day a year that we express our love and appreciation for our loved ones who stand by us every day.  I have similar feelings about singling out four-year-old preschool in budget and program conversations about improving school readiness, and here’s why.

In President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, he called for universal access to preschool, and anticipated details of this plan include expansion to high quality early learning programs that span the birth to five continuum.  This comes on the heels of Governor Snyder’s state budget presentation for fiscal year 2014 that calls for a substantial expansion for the Great Start Readiness Preschool program (GSRP) – Michigan’s preschool program for four-year-olds at-risk of starting school behind.  (Learn more about what the Governor’s budget means for young children in our Budget Basics report).

We know access to high quality preschool is an evidence-based strategy towards reducing an achievement gap – a gap that begins early and can build over time without the appropriate prevention and intervention strategies.  GSRP has proven to reduce disparities in student achievement including reducing the readiness gap at kindergarten, improving reading proficiency for third graders (a critical benchmark for school success), and getting more young people to their high school graduations.  And in fact, children of color who participated in GSRP were three times more likely to graduate high school on-time than children of color who did not attend GSRP – proving its effectiveness in reducing disparities.

I am a huge supporter of preschool for four-year-olds, and I also think that focusing significant investment only towards four-year-olds is short-sighted.  Just like expressing love should be about more than one-day, we know that early childhood education should be about more than support for a single year.  While GSRP is geared towards four-year-olds, we know that disparities in cognitive development emerge in babies as young as nine months of age.  And for the babies and toddlers who struggled the most, one year of preschool is a huge help towards preparing them for kindergarten but it may not be quite enough to offset the challenges they faced early in life.  Even Governor Snyder acknowledges that education must focus on the entire P-20 continuum – that begins prenatally not at four-years-old – though he does not reflect this in his budget.

To lay the best foundation to build a successful education career and to reduce achievement gaps, we must begin at birth and provide support to the most challenged young families.  I applaud President Obama’s efforts to expand access to not just four-year-old preschool but also Early Head Start, quality child care, and evidence-based home visiting.  Perhaps as we advocate to ensure that the GSPR expansion stays in the final FY2014 state budget, we should also talk about some level of support for Michigan’s youngest learners – children from birth through age three – to prevent early disparities.  And perhaps as we discuss President Obama’s early childhood focus with our Congressional folks, we should discuss how any plan to offset the sequester must safeguard the federal programs that currently support infants and toddlers like the Child Care and Development Block Grant and Early Head Start.  Here at Michigan’s Children, we love preschool, and we also know that early childhood education begins before four-years of age.

-Mina Hong

Babies Today, Business Leaders Tomorrow

Last week, the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan (CLCM) released their early childhood business plan at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference.  And though the CLCM didn’t explain how their business plan would be funded– whether from private investments or from targeted public revenue sources – a statement from business leaders calling for significantly increased investment in early childhood education for the betterment of Michigan’s future workforce is a big deal.  So what exactly would an early childhood business plan mean for children and families in Michigan?

The CLCM is a group of business leaders from across Michigan who are committed to ensuring that all children arrive at school healthy and ready to learn.  Since its founding, the CLCM has advocated for expanded resources so that all young children eligible for Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) – the state’s preschool program for four-year-olds at-risk of school failure – can access the program.  Currently, 38,000 four-year-olds eligible for GSRP aren’t able to access the program due to limited state funds.

Having business leaders call for fully funding GSRP is great news because we know that the program works.  The GSRP program has proven outcomes.  In addition to a high return on investment, high quality preschool programs like GSRP ensure that young children are ready for school, improve student achievement and ultimately contribute to higher high school graduation rates, all while narrowing the achievement gap.

BUT, four-year-old preschool alone is not enough.  The other half of the CLCM’s platform is to strengthen efforts to assure the healthy growth of children from birth through age three.  At Michigan’s Children, we know that laying strong foundations beginning at birth are essential to help young children prepare for school and to succeed in life.  When cognitive disparities emerge as young as nine months of age and continue to grow throughout life, taking advantage of the first three years of life when the brain is rapidly developing is critical to prevent these large racial, ethnic, and economic-related disparities.  And the business leaders who are part of the Leadership Council agree with this science.

Michigan’s Children continues to suggest that at least twenty percent of any new money for preschool be set-aside to serve infants, toddlers and their families.  Whether these new funds are from public or private sources, dedicating a portion of new funding to serve children from birth through age three would truly realize the P-20 education continuum.

Michigan’s Children applauds the early childhood business plan and will continue to work with the Children’s Leadership Council towards their goals to expand preschool and birth through three services to prepare a strong and diverse workforce for the future.  Growing preschool and birth through three programs concurrently will show the greatest gains in terms of healthy development, school readiness, and return on investment all while preventing and reducing the achievement gap and strengthening the workforce of tomorrow.

Learn more about Michigan’s Children’s early childhood priorities.

-Mina Hong

Healthy Mental Health Starts at Birth

Today is SAMHSA’s National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.  This year’s focus is how, with the help of caring adults and informed child-serving systems, children can demonstrate resilience following traumatic experiences.  While intervention is crucial to ensure healthy mental and emotional development, a strong socioemotional foundation that begins at birth is critical.  Programs that serve families with young children prenatally through age three ensure that young children are socially and emotionally on-track while reducing exposure to traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect, or domestic violence.

Why does children’s mental health matter in the early years?  Children with social, emotional and behavioral problems have more difficulty with language development and acquiring the “soft skills” needed to succeed in school and life such as perseverance, attention, motivation, self-confidence, effective communication, and conflict resolution.  Left untreated early in childhood, socioemotional challenges can result in poor educational achievement, long-term mental health problems, and anti-social behaviors that lead to increased school discipline and delinquency.  To prevent these issues, parents and caregivers need access to information and resources to support their child’s social and emotional health in the first three and five years of life; and need resources to maintain healthy relationships and access basic needs to avoid traumatic experiences such as domestic violence and abuse/neglect.

Programs that serve young children from birth through age three and their families often target children who are most at-risk of experiencing social or emotional problems.  According to the 2012 Michigan Right Start report, one in ten Michigan births are to teen moms and one in six are to moms without a high school diploma.  Teen moms and moms of any age who have not been successful in school themselves are typically least prepared to understand the developmental and socioemotional needs of their children and lack the skills to navigate the systems necessary to provide needed interventions.  Many programs that serve children from birth through age three target these challenged families, and provide parents with the foundational tools they need to ensure their child’s healthy development – physically, emotionally, and socially.  These programs ensure that young children have access to early and regular screenings for developmental delays and socioemotional challenges.  Children whose social and emotional problems are identified and addressed early on are more likely to succeed in the early learning programs that have been shown to increase school achievement and later success in the workplace.  In addition, their parents are more likely to be able to participate successfully in education and job training programs, and to maintain employment.

Unfortunately in Michigan, between 10 and 14 percent of all young children birth through age 5 experience social, emotional and behavioral problems; yet most do not receive mental health services—even when their mental health conditions have been identified.  This is due to the vastly insufficient resources available for mental health treatment.  Creating a consistent source of funding for children from birth through age three and their families will not only expand access to the family support programs that serve families with young children from birth through age three but could also expand access to mental health treatment that young children need to succeed in life.

-Mina Hong

Failing Michigan’s Youngest = Failing Michigan’s Future

Since its inception, Michigan’s Children has focused on children’s well-being from cradle-to-career – a concept that aligns with Governor Snyder’s P-20 education continuum.  With Executive support for this continuum; as a state, Michigan must put its money where its mouth is.  While the state has made efforts to support preschool-aged children through the Great Start Readiness Program, the state’s half-day preschool program for four-year-olds at-risk of school failure, we have failed as a state to provide consistent support for Michigan’s youngest learners – those three years of age and younger.

It is well documented that the first 1000 days of life are critical for the healthy development of young children – a time when the brain is developing rapidly and early literacy and foundations for lifelong success can be solidified.  More importantly, the first three years of life are critical to prevent large racial, ethnic, and economic-related disparities that begin to emerge as young as nine months of age and continue to grow throughout life.  Disparities in child outcomes, particularly educational disparities, have huge consequences such as:

  • kindergarten teachers needing to spend more time with students who aren’t ready for school;
  • students repeating grades in K-12;
  • more students needing access to special education services;
  • disparities in on-time graduation rates; and
  • disparities in college and career readiness.

These outcomes combined will in the long run, take a toll on the state’s economy as we will not have a workforce prepared to take jobs of the future. Long-term disparities in educational success and their economic, social and fiscal consequences are profound.  However, taking advantage of the first three years of life by supporting families with young children to be their child’s first and best teachers can help reduce future taxpayer burdens associated with disparate child outcomes.

Michigan’s Children’s key priorities for the fiscal year 2013 budget are to improve educational outcomes and close equity gaps.  Creating a sustainable funding stream for children from birth through age three would provide the foundation for that improvement.  High quality supports for infants, toddlers and their families can help reduce and prevent equity gaps directly linked to the Governor’s Dashboard including infant mortality, child poverty, 3rd grade reading, and college readiness.

The State of Michigan used to support families with young children through the 0 to 3 Secondary Prevention Program.  0 to 3 Secondary Prevention supported community-based collaborative programs that fostered positive parenting skills, improved parent-child interactions, promoted access to needed community services, increased local capacity to serve families with young children, improved school readiness, and supported healthy environments.  It’s funding peaked at $7.75 million in 2001 before complete elimination in last year’s budget debates.  It is critical that Michigan reinvest in young children from birth through age three by creating a consistent source of funding for infants, toddlers and their families to truly realize the P-20 education continuum.

Check out Michigan’s Children’s website to learn more about our early childhood priorities.

-Mina Hong

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