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Film: Toddler years vital for learning

Heather Young and children James and Hannah, of rural Nicholas County, are featured in the documentary film “The First 1,000 Days.” “Being a parent is hard,” Young says, “but when we do our job with any kind of help, then we’re giving our kids the better chance of doing well in school and in life.”

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The first 1,000 days of life are not just a time for baby rattles, sippy cups and bedtime stories.

A wide body of research shows that those 1,000 days — approximately the first three years of a child’s life — are crucially important to the development of a child’s brain and the child’s future ability to learn and prosper.

Yet many parents across West Virginia — faced with low income, unemployment or long working hours — are drawn away from their children or weighed down with the stress of barely getting by at just this critical juncture.

A new West Virginia Public Broadcasting documentary, “The First 1,000 Days: Investing in WV Children When It Counts,” airing 9 p.m. Monday, delves deep into the science, economics and significance of early childhood development in the Mountain State.

“The first thousand days are so important because the brain is developing faster than it ever will again and it’s setting the stage for all future learning. And that’s what makes it so important,” said Julie Pratt, project director of the West Virginia Early Childhood Planning Task Force.

Pratt, one of several state experts interviewed in the documentary, said there are programs that can help families that are proven to work — but there is not nearly enough of an investment in them.

“I think the big takeaway from the film is the fact that we know what works in West Virginia. West Virginia is a leader in some areas of early childhood. We have very capable people here that know how to provide good programs for young children — but we don’t have enough of them,” she said.

The documentary, produced by John Nakashima, profiles parents and their children who’ve been helped by Early Head Start, Head Start and In-Home Family Education, a voluntary program that provides in-home parenting education and support to families with young children.

These are examples of effective, successful programs that are not even close to being available in every county in the state, let alone in every community, said Pratt, “even though we know their impact and their return on investment both in human and economic terms is really significant. We’re only reaching a really small portion of the children that need some of these programs.”

The documentary notes that a quarter of West Virginia children live at or below the federal poverty level — more than 99,000 children, which is more than enough to fill every seat in both the West Virginia University and Marshall University football stadiums.

Yet while about 900 families in the state take part in In-Home Family Education programs, more than 9,000 additional families could participate if this program was available everywhere in West Virginia, according to a 2013 study by Partners in Community Outreach.

Nakashima said he was originally inspired to do a documentary that would take a hard look at the reality of what families face in West Virginia, but that would also inspire and educate parents and policymakers about the significance of early childhood development.

“It kind of amazed me to find out talking to your kid and having eye contact and playing with your kid and giving that feedback loop to your kid builds the architecture of your brain,” he said.

Nakashima said he wanted the documentary to show the challenges — the cycle of low wages and stress for parents that pose challenges to a child’s first 1,000 days — and the successes that can result from programs proven to help families.

“Just one parent seeing a parent with a kid having success I think is really inspiring,” said Nakashima. “On the whole issue of child poverty in West Virginia, focusing on early childhood development is the best place to start.”

Jim McKay, program director with the TEAM for West Virginia Children, also was interviewed in the documentary.

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“We know that when families and communities are challenged by poverty, every day becomes an uphill battle,” McKay said. “When you’re trying to walk that tightrope to just make ends meet, it’s hard to maintain a positive perspective on your role as a parent. Increased stress can have an impact on the children.

“When there’s the presence of toxic stress, really adverse experiences, then that can have a negative impact. So we want to make sure that we’re doing all we can to buffer against any toxic stress and help build protective factors, so that families can thrive and support in this crucial time when the brain’s architecture is being developed.”

McKay noted that healthy early childhood development ripples through communities and society at large.

“We tend to be individually focused, but I think what this documentary does a nice job in showing is that we really are all in this together. So, when we work together as communities helping each other, we can have big success.”

McKay said a blueprint is already available for the state to expand its efforts.

“For West Virginia to really move forward, one opportunity is through the work of the Governor’s Early Childhood Task Force that concluded their work in the fall of last year. They laid out a pretty comprehensive 10-year plan for the state of West Virginia to become a national leader in early childhood programs.”

The plan would expand in-home family education programs statewide. It would expand access to quality child-care programs for 3-year-olds and would enhance the quality of early childhood programs generally, he said.

“The other side I would say is, I think it’s time for our state and really our society as a whole to build a new social movement on behalf of children and families,” McKay said.

“Our society talks a lot about caring for kids, but, for the most part, our policies often say you’re on your own. So, instead of an approach where our policies leave families and children on their own and say, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ we need more policies that say, ‘We’re all in this together.’

“There’s no reason why the richest country on earth shouldn’t invest in our children. But we fall far behind most of the other countries in the world.”

Pratt said there are a lot of things that we want to do as a society and public funds are limited. “So we really have to focus on where they’re going to make the most difference.”

Work by Nobel laureate economist James Heckman has shown that investment in early childhood education programs is well worth it, Pratt said. “The return on investment in economic terms of early childhood development is as good or better than other traditional economic development investments.”

Pratt said she was impressed by West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s “huge undertaking” in producing this documentary on an important subject.

“I think the film has a lot of national significance, even though the focus is on West Virginia. The issues it addresses are issues states all across the country are grappling with.”

After the documentary airs Monday, it will be available for viewing online at wvpublic.org/1000days/ with video extras, parenting advice and other resources.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or call 304-348-3017.

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