The First Eight Years Part 3: A Holistic Approach to Kids and Their Families

AECF_KC_PR_ECE-cover_150px (2)Do we run systems for children from an adult orientation or a kid’s perspective?  That is this week’s big picture question in thinking about Kentucky’s kids during their first eight years of life.

We have been writing for the last couple of weeks about a recent report, The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for a Lifetime of Success, which was co-released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) and Kentucky Youth Advocates on November 4.  We have discussed the core role that poverty plays in those first eight yearsWe then shared the headline-grabbing statistics about the number of Kentucky kids who were exposed to adverse childhood experiences during the first eight years of life and the powerful impact that exposure has on any child’s current life and future development.

In a pile of statistics that could be pretty demoralizing if taken alone, there are more than a few silver bullets.  As an example, in our blog around poverty and the “first eight years,” we cited several measures that we as a state can take immediately to change that trajectory.  When we think about tackling the fact that more kids in Kentucky (and Montana) are exposed to three or more adverse experiences in “the first eight years” than anywhere in America, we can wring our hands – talk about “Kentucky being Kentucky” or take up a rather direct call from the report – RUN SYSTEMS ON BEHALF OF KIDS RATHER THAN FOR ADULTS. 

In other words, ensure that health care and education are comprehensive and coordinated for all children through the age of 8.  I get it – program coordination may not tug at your heartstrings.  But it has real power to make a big difference in the lives of kids.

In general, government programs operate on the hypothesis that problems and issues that confront kids and families come in silos.  Nutrition is over here while health is over there.  Quality care and education is over here while developmental screenings and interventions are over there.  Maternal depression is here while family supports are over there.  And yet we all know that is not the real world for a single family.  You cannot separate factors into pre-packaged and individually administered programs if we want real impact.

Just like when it comes to giving families an economic hand up, a more systemic approach to other supports is achievable in a broad and bold way because we already see it happening in smaller ways throughout the Commonwealth.  As an example, the home visitation program for new moms (HANDS) is widely regarded and has shown to be a huge success.  Early childhood folks and health professionals; child welfare advocates and educators; and most importantly the parents themselves all describe HANDS as a model effort because it looks at families holistically and is oriented towards prevention and support rather than disparate after-the-fact interventions.

Another excellent historic example of that holistic style was when Kentucky used a regional approach to coordinated child care.  That model was animated by commonly shared high standards, regional context and an approach that dealt with “soups to nuts” when it came to child care supports.

A third example is still in its developmental stage but the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood shows signs of being a catalyst integrated and cross-sector programming.  While anything emanating from the Governor’s Office can get caught in political pettiness rather than a mission focus, current leadership in that Office is fighting hard to keep the spotlight on children and families through smart programming and better data analyses.

“The First Eight Years” asserts that “without effective coordination, a child will be lost in the system.”  We can’t afford to lose a single kid.  An intentional effort to coordinate and integrate supports in a holistic and family-focused manner can promulgate a quiet revolution for Kentucky’s youngest citizens.

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