The Most Important Thing We Can Do to Give Kids a Healthy Start in 2016

Dec 29, 2015, 9:00 AM, Posted by Giridhar Mallya, Martha Davis

Supporting parents and families is one of the most critical things we can do to safeguard a healthy future for our nation's kids.

Children raise their hands in a classroom.

We talk a big game, as a nation, about how much we value our kids. After all, “the children are our future,” right?

But here’s the thing: our investments and policies don’t yet line up with this value. Spending on children makes up just 10 percent of the federal budget, and that share is likely to fall. The outcomes are clear: Child well-being in the United States ranks 26 on a list of 29 industrialized nations in a UNICEF report. We must do better!

So here’s our recommendation of the absolute best thing we can do to give kids a healthy start in 2016: support parents and families.

Looking back on our years of experience working with children and families, as a social worker and educator and as a public health physician, we’ve learned that kids thrive when their caregivers thrive. And they can fall behind when their parents are stretched thin.

Recently, we saw this idea echoed back to us in a new documentary, “The Raising of America.” The five-part series looks at the social and economic pressures that put children and families at risk.

“It’s too much,” says one working mother in the film, as she stands in her kitchen holding her baby. “I can’t do it.”

The good news is, we’re seeing bright spots in communities that are already finding ways to make life easier for parents and better for children. Here are three concrete examples of how communities have supported families in giving their kids a healthy start:

Make High-Quality, Affordable Childcare and Preschool a Priority

High-quality childcare and early education can cost as much as rent in many communities — and more than some public college tuition bills. Many parents, even with moderate-wage jobs, can only afford the cost by putting their kids in lower quality care or taking a second (or third) job.

It pays to invest in early childhood education because early learning leads to success in elementary school. And success in elementary school predicts whether children will go on to get a high school diploma.

Many cities realize the value of educating their youngest residents and supporting their families. These places are making free or low-cost preschool available to as many kids as possible. For example, in June, Culture of Health Prizewinner Bridgeport, Connecticut, announced that through a partnership with the United Way it is launching a universal pre-K initiative.

Not only will the program ensure every kid in Bridgeport enters kindergarten prepared, but it also aims to engage parents, provide transportation, and expand children’s access to health screenings. The city now has 4,000 slots, covering 90 percent of Bridgeport’s 3- and 4-year-olds.

But there’s more work to do. Only six states have half or more of their 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool. Public-private partnerships will be critical to supporting expansion so that all communities can catch up with Bridgeport.

Turn Schools Into Community Hubs That Support Kids and Parents

In Lawrence, Massachusetts, nearly 4 in 10 children live in poverty, and four years ago, only half of high school seniors graduated.

Last year, the graduation rate had risen to 67 percent.

Lawrence, another 2015 Culture of Health prize winner, has made many changes that may have led to that dramatic rise. One thing that surely has made a difference is the reimagined Family Resource Center connected to the city’s public schools.

Lawrence: Family Resource Center A parent ambassador explains the services offered by the Family Resource Center in Lawrence.

Educators and community partners saw that more students would succeed in the classroom if their families had more financial security. So they proposed that the center, which already offered registration and school enrollment support, be turned into a hub of services for families.

Today, parents can go to the center to get help finding a job, enrolling in health insurance, scheduling doctor appointments, and getting into training and ESOL classes. All the much-needed support equips them to better focus on their children’s educational and emotional needs.

Many other communities are embracing this model, too, recognizing that schools and families can support each other in nurturing healthy, happy, and well-educated children.

Focus Health Care Settings on Health and Wellbeing

Founded in direct response to the needs of the four public housing communities it serves, Philadelphia’s Stephen and Sandra Sheller 11th Street Family Health Services clinic does more than take care of families’ physical health. It also offers mental and behavioral health care, dental check-ups, couples and family counseling, and even cooking classes.

Because the clinic has found that a large number of patients have experienced physical or emotional abuse or other adverse childhood experiences, 11th Street embraces the Sanctuary model of trauma-informed care. The model uses art therapy, mindfulness, meditation and other techniques to help patients, including parents, manage the effects of toxic stress.

When parents achieve better mental and emotional health, they are better able to balance the dizzying demands of parenthood in the 21st century. As health care continues to evolve, we need to make sure payers and providers find ways to address the physical, mental, and social needs of families.

Supporting children and their families is hands down the best investment we can make for our nation’s future — it will make for stronger communities and businesses and a healthier and more successful nation. That’s why we at the Foundation are committed, with our partners and grantees, to help create the conditions that give every child and family a chance to thrive. We hope you’ll join us in that mission in the New Year.

Martha B. Davis, MSS, is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Her work focuses on strengthening families to create nurturing, healthy environments that promote children’s positive development. Read her full bio.

Giridhar Mallya, MD, MSHP, a senior policy officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is a public health physician and health policy expert. Read his full bio.