Why First 5 is so important for LA’s kids

By the time a child is 5 years old, 90% of the brain has developed.

Throughout the first 1,000 days of a baby’s life, the brain forms 700 neural connections every second. That’s what we said: every second. This makes these first days the time of greatest opportunity and highest risk, as early childhood experiences deeply influence the brain’s entire architecture. By the time a child is 5 years old, 90 percent of the brain has developed.

How can we aid parents in developing their young children into kids ready to succeed in kindergarten and life? Fortunately, in Los Angeles County, we have First 5 LA, a leading early childhood advocate and public grant-making organization that supports programs, services, parent education and advocacy efforts.

Long before I became Chair of the First 5 LA Board of Commissioners, I was serving in the State Assembly when actor and child advocate, Rob Reiner, was leading the Proposition 10 efforts in 1998. We had been on the cusp of reaching a cultural tipping point when smoking was no longer “cool” and we were finally turning the tide on smoking rates.

At the same time, brain research on young children was making national headlines. We had spent decades focusing on K-12, but research was beginning to insistently tell us that most of the brain is already developed by age 5. And where was the infrastructure needed to help nurture this critical time — a time that would affect the trajectory of a person’s life and the life of their society?

California voters were convinced and passed the Prop 10 ballot initiative to fund services for children, prenatal to 5, through a $0.50 tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products. First 5’s were created throughout the State, ours, in particular, in Los Angeles County. In my first six months as Chair, I have developed an even stronger connection with First 5 LA’s initiatives and partnership efforts. The work sounds simple — to help parents and caregivers help kids — but the ways in which we do it involves several nuances and layers.

First 5 LA’s single biggest area of investment, Welcome Baby, is one of the largest home visitation investments in the nation. As a voluntary, hospital and home-based visiting program, Welcome Baby provides information and support to pregnant women and new moms. The many benefits of home visiting include the improvement of both immediate and lifelong outcomes in school readiness, positive parenting, and reductions in abuse and maltreatment. As a prevention program, home visitation is a prudent investment that can result in long-term savings in our criminal justice, education, health and human services programs.

First 5 LA also supports families by strengthening their communities. Through its place-based effort, Best Start, First 5 LA brings together parents, residents, organizations and others in 14 communities throughout the County. The Best Start Community Partnerships work to enhance residents’ leadership and community engagement skills so they can be a voice for change and action, strengthen networks of social support for parents, and increase knowledge about child development.

Additionally, First 5 LA is focused on early childhood education, to give children the best chance in life; homeless families, because when families have a roof over their heads, children are so much safer; and recognition of and attention to childhood trauma, which can lead to negative outcomes later in life.

But First 5 LA can’t do it alone, especially with dwindling resources. Tobacco taxes have contributed to a decline in smoking — a real public health success story. However, with smoking cessation comes decreasing tax revenue — a decline of over 50 percent for First 5 LA since it began in 1999.

I’m committed to moving forward with its 2015–2020 Strategic Plan which aims to align spending with the revenue, as well as take partnerships with the County and First 5 LA to new levels. Though First 5 LA continues its critical investments in services like Welcome Baby and Best Start, it isn’t just about funding initiatives. It’s also about thinking differently about County partnerships to improve services that reflect best practices. We’re partnering to support homeless families, provide trauma-informed care, and prevent child abuse and neglect, and we are always on the lookout for further opportunities for collaboration and alignment.

I invite you to explore the many partnership opportunities with First 5 LA to ensure that young children in LA County enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and life. You can also stay up-to-date on their work by signing up for their monthly newsletter, Early Childhood Matters.