By Linda Turpin
Ross Thompson squats down and talks quietly eye-to-eye with a 4-year-old boy wearing a party hat. Today is the boy’s pretend birthday.
Thompson is a UC Davis distinguished professor of psychology, a board member of Zero to Three, the national organization that champions healthy development for the very young, and is on the executive committee of UCD’s Center for Poverty Research.
His wife, Janet Thompson, directs UCD’s Center for Child and Family Studies’ Early Childhood Lab School. Besides hosting imaginary parties, the lab school serves as a child development program for infants, toddlers and preschoolers as well as a teaching and research lab for UCD students and faculty.
“Happy pretend birthday,” Thompson says to the boy. He stands up to rejoin his wife to continue their tour with an adult visitor. Dozens of professionals tour this model school, about 100 a year, some from as far away as China.
It’s another anniversary, too. Ten years ago, the Thompsons left Nebraska for UCD, where they now devote their working lives not just to this lab school but as advocates for the youngest and most vulnerable everywhere.
When he’s not celebrating pretend birthdays or teaching bigger students in his university classes, Ross Thompson talks to anyone who will listen about how to give disadvantaged kids a better start in life.
“There have been more than 100,000 spaces lost in the California preschool system just in the last few years under the current administration’s budget cuts,” he said. “And that’s a system primarily targeted toward these kinds of children.”
California now ranks 24th nationwide in providing state preschool access to 4-year-olds — down from 13th place 10 years ago — according to “The State of Preschool 2012: State Preschool Yearbook,” a report released in April by the National Institute for Early Education Research, a Rutgers University-based research organization.
In March, Thompson testified before Assembly and Senate committees about child care, budget cuts and how poverty affects low-income children and their families.
Despite California’s bleak funding prospects, Thompson believes more people now recognize that “investments in early learning are not optional if we care about the achievement gap and if we care about the long-term outcomes, particularly for kids who are most at risk.”
And it’s those kids most at risk that worry him, the ones who “fall off the ledge when funding cuts need to be made. And that’s part of the California story,” he said.
But Thompson is encouraged by President Obama’s recent proposal for state-federal partnerships to expand high-quality preschool to all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds and early learning programs for even younger children.
“Part of the reason the Obama administration has made the historic initiatives it has in early childhood education is because of at least two things: one is the achievement gap,” Thompson said. “But I think the other thing is the realization from developmental neuroscience of just how significant are processes of brain development and the associated learning capacities of young children.”
So how can policy-makers help close the achievement gap and improve life prospects for low-income, educationally at-risk youngsters?
“One of the things the research tells us very clearly is that you get a bigger bang for your buck from high-quality preschool targeted toward the most educationally at-risk children,” Thompson said. “These children have the farthest to go, they are the farthest behind, they have the most to gain — and a high-quality preschool program will do that.”
“Targeted” preschool — as opposed to “universal” — reserves government funding for disadvantaged children. With universal preschool, publicly funded classes are for everyone, regardless of income level.
“At a time of limited funds it seems to me that the most cost-effective approach is to target those limited funds toward children and families who otherwise would not have the opportunity to receive those services, to participate in those programs,” Janet Thompson said, acknowledging that “it’s hard to sell targeted programs. It tends to be seen by voters often as just another social program, another entitlement program.”
“And they’re also hard to protect politically,” Ross Thompson adds, noting that when the state slashed those 100,000 preschool spaces, educationally at-risk children bore the brunt.
Better teacher training also helps children enter kindergarten ready to succeed, according to Janet Thompson, who calls the current approach of preparing teachers to work with young children “woefully inadequate.”
“It’s under-funded; it isn’t part of most schools of education in most state colleges and universities,” she said. “And of course, with funding being what it is, many of us think this is not a time we’re going to see improvements.”
Thompson and her husband helped write California’s state preschool standards, which are designed to teach teachers and result in higher-quality preschool programs.
Along with program quality, wages for early educators must rise, too, Thompson said, so that “the best and the brightest people with real gifts in education” not only enter the field, but stay there.
And a diverse state needs diverse teachers.
“People who can speak Spanish, people who can understand the communities children are coming from,” she said.
But an essential ingredient in this recipe for success is starting early, very early, and “pushing on that birth to 3 age range and developing models of what we can do to help parents, especially at-risk parents in that really, really critical period,” Ross Thompson said.
Partnering with parents can mean prenatal home visits, parent education woven into the Women, Infant, Children supplemental nutrition program and well-baby check-ups that check not just baby but parents, too.
“If the child looks healthy but the mother looks depressed, it does not look good for that child,” he said.
Despite the gloomy funding climate, the Thompsons glimpse a silver lining.
“It’s worth remembering how far we’ve come,” Ross Thompson said, recalling when women began entering the job market in record numbers and “we weren’t talking about early childhood education, we were talking about early care. And in those days, early care was usually a means of promoting adult workforce participation.”
But now we’re “thinking about it in terms of brain development. And I think that’s a sea change most of us would not have expected to happen,” he said. “And I think we’ve got more of those scientific surprises just around the bend that are going to be focusing our attention even more on how important is what happens in the early years and it’s potential lifelong significance.”
Back in the lab school’s preschool classroom you hear the sound of children shifting gears. What’s next? Story time? A cooking project? Collaborating on a fence mural?
In a world where all children come first and birthdays are summoned at will, anything is possible.