Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children


How can the United States do better for its toddlers?

Answers abound in a series of articles produced by the Hechinger Institute and Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project. A mix of these articles appear on Hechinger’s website and also on Slate’s.

“Could we improve America by treating 2-year-olds better?” the title of an article by Lillian Mongeau asks.

“Parents dread the terrible twos, but what makes the year so tough for many families isn’t just tantrums in supermarket aisles or toilet-training disasters. It’s the difficulty of finding safe, high-quality child care in a country that offers parents limited choices of questionable quality and little guidance on how to make those choices. This neglect could have far-reaching consequences—research shows that a toddler’s daily environment can have a lasting effect on her brain structure for a lifetime.”

In another article, “We know how to provide good child care, we just don’t insist on it,” Mongeau and Aditi Malhotra deftly tackle the challenges for early educators, writing:

“Imagine that you have just entered a room with 12 2-year-olds in it Three are using a chair as a drum. Two are taking turns snatching a stuffed teddy bear from each other, and whoever isn’t holding the teddy bear is crying.”

The article goes on to describe the typical ups and downs that children in an early education setting can face.

“Now, imagine you have been tasked with taking care of this group for the next eight hours,” the article says. That would mean keeping these children safe, clean and fed, and:

“It would be preferable if you could also play with each of them one-on-one for a while to make sure you have a clear sense of where each is developmentally. Oh, and be sure to arrange some art projects, outdoor exploration, and reading time since loosely organized activities like these help toddlers develop their self-expression, explore their worlds, and learn basic pre-academic skills.

“Don’t forget that children’s brains are 80 percent developed by age 3, so the experiences you provide will affect their brain structure for the rest of their lives. No pressure. And yes, of course you’ll be paid: $9.77 per hour, the national average for child care workers.

Would you stay?”

In a third article – “Regardless of income level, access to quality care for 2-year-olds is tight” — Mongeau and Stephen Smiley point to stark facts:

“Of the country’s approximately 3.9 million 2-year-olds, about 2.4 million, or 62 percent, had mothers who worked in 2016, a good indicator that they need nonparental care for some portion of the day. (Stay-at-home fathers are still too small a group to have a significant impact on the big-picture numbers.) But only about 37 percent of 1- and 2-year-olds are in care that is licensed by the state or federal government, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.”

“People think it is their own, personal, independent problem and they just have to solve it, but if you lived in Italy, Denmark, or Canada, you wouldn’t have to solve it,” Teresa Rupp says in this article. She’s the executive director of Child Start, a charitable organization providing low- or no-cost care in Wichita, Kansas. She adds: “We have not reached the point of saying ‘collective action is what it takes.’”

France, however, has reached that point, as Sarah Carr writes in the article, “What France can teach us about how to to educate the most vulnerable 2-year-olds.”

Carr notes:

“In recent years, the country has decided that boosting the number of 2-year-olds enrolled in école maternelle—with a particular eye toward struggling families who live in the equivalent of U.S. public housing or come from immigrant communities—is one of the surest paths to promoting educational equity. In France, nearly all youngsters already start school at the age of 3, so the latest shift is really about moving up the starting line by a year for the kids who need it the most. ‘We prefer to give an advantage to the most deprived children,’ said Gilles Petreault, an expert in early childhood education whose official title is general inspector of state education for the France Ministry of National Education.”

“In the United States, by contrast, the percentage of 2-year-olds enrolled in educationally focused preschool programs is negligible, and about a third of American 3-year-olds attend such programs (nearly 100 percent of French 3-year-olds do).”

To learn more, check out the series and share it on social media. It’s a good, hard look at how the country could revolutionize the lives of 2-year-olds.