Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

When she describes Massachusetts’ successful application for a federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant, Commissioner Sherri Killins of the Department of Early Education and Care often talks of identifying – and serving – all of the commonwealth’s young children with high needs.

Who, precisely, are high-needs children? The Massachusetts Early Learning Plan detailed in the state’s ELC application offers a definition that incorporates risk factors beyond a family’s low-income status. “Being low-income alone doesn’t make you high-needs,” Killins said recently.

First, some background. The goal of the Early Learning Challenge is “to better prepare more children with high needs for kindergarten because children from birth to age 5, including those from low-income families, need a strong foundation for success in school and beyond,” according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Education.

The Obama administration gave states flexibility to create their own definitions of high-needs children, within this general  guideline:  “Children with high needs means children from birth through kindergarten entry who are from low-income families or otherwise in need of special assistance and support, including children who have disabilities or developmental delays; who are English learners; who reside on ‘Indian lands’ as that term is defined by section 8013(6) of the ESEA; who are migrant, homeless, or in foster care; and other children as identified by the state.”

The Massachusetts definition of high needs includes children with multiple risk factors:

As many as 135,000 Massachusetts children, from birth to age 5, face one or more risk factors each day, the state estimates. Up to 20,000 children have three or more risk factors and, without intervention, are likely to suffer developmental delays, according to the Young Child Risk Calculator of the National Center for Children in Poverty.

A clear definition of high needs will give a more accurate picture of the commonwealth’s young children and help the state target services to ensure children’s health development and school readiness.