Children in Ector County, Texas, toss rings at a free, week-long summer camp that was designed with input from the Early Development Instrument. Photo/Odessa American

Neighborhood Change for a City’s Youngest

New data is helping communities come together to improve neighborhoods for children who need it the most.

by Kathleen Costanza

For six weeks in the spring of 2014, Sheri Fincher drove around Ector County, Texas, meeting with kindergarten teachers at each of the county’s 28 elementary schools, one by one. A packet of papers in hand, Fincher was there to ask teachers to spend an upcoming Saturday in a school computer lab filling out something called the Early Development Instrument, or the EDI. She described how the data would help the whole community see how well young children were faring in Ector County’s neighborhoods.

Fincher’s organization, First 5 Permian Basin, a home visiting and parent support program primarily funded by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, was nervous. Even with a $200 stipend and some childcare help, would kindergarten teachers be able to devote hours on a Saturday to answering questions about their students?

The result “was phenomenal,” said Beth Myerson, director of First 5 Permian Basin. “The teachers all really got the fact that it’s going to take the whole community to make a difference for kids.”

Over three Saturdays in April, 115 teachers filled out the EDIs, which measure school readiness in five areas known to affect children’s well-being and school performance, including physical health, social competence, and emotional maturity.

The data were aggregated by where the children live to create population-level statistics. The results were laid over green, color-coded maps that feature data on poverty rates, childcare, and preschool access, or parents’ English-language ability. The darker the green, the higher the rate of developmentally vulnerable children in a neighborhood. The maps illuminate how experiences at home and in the community affect children long before they arrive in kindergarten.

Kindergarten teachers in Ector County fill out the questionaire for the Early Development Instrument in 2014. Photo/Odessa American

Ector County is one of 60 communities and 200 school districts in the US that have completed the EDI since 2009 through an initiative called Transforming Early Childhood Community Systems, or TECCS, at the University of California Los Angeles. Some communities use the results to attract funding, others to develop programs or partnerships. But like Ector County, many communities use the information to unite community stakeholders in building healthier neighborhoods, families, and schools.

Does Neighborhood Affect Child Development?

“The reason why the neighborhood is so important is that it either provides an environment that supports healthy family function, or it provides an environment that undermines the ability of parents to provide a safe and responsive environment for their children,” said Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, during a recent online discussion hosted by the Build Healthy Places Network.

Economic instability and the other daily stressors that low-income families face can disrupt a child’s social, emotional, and physical development. Research shows positive and negative experiences in the years when the child’s brain is growing have effects that can last a lifetime.

In 2000, the landmark National Academy of Sciences Report “From Neurons to Neighborhoods,” which Shonkoff co-edited, pulled together decades of research on how economic hardship, combined with neighborhood hardship, can compromise healthy child development. Since then, the research has only solidified the idea that “toxic stress” — ongoing experiences like living in an unstable home or exposure to violence — can harm developing brains. Poor children show a 60 percent lower cognitive performance than their peers when entering school, according to data analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute. And persistent stress caused by living in poverty has been found to result in a 10 percent reduction in working memory through young adulthood.

“Neighborhood either provides an environment that supports healthy family function, or it provides an environment that undermines the ability of parents to provide a safe and responsive environment for their children.”

This growing body of research is part of the reason many are calling for the community development sector to have a more explicit focus on making neighborhoods healthy places for young children.

“The data rings clear as a bell. It’s undeniable,” said Nancy O. Andrews, President and CEO of the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF), one of the nation’s largest community development finance institutions.

The community development field has not always had the benefit of drawing from research to inform its strategies. For example, when LIIF started investing in childcare centers in the 1990s, its effort was mostly seen as way to support low-income women while they were at work. Over time, Andrews said, new evidence illuminated just how seriously poverty harms young brains, helping persuade LIIF to prioritize work involving high-quality childcare centers. As of December 2015, LIIF has invested $114 million in early care and education centers through loans, grants, and technical assistance.

Supporting healthy neighborhood development “is one of the most powerful economic mobility and opportunity strategies that exists,” Andrews said.

Doctors agree. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended that pediatricians ask parents if they have trouble making ends meet as a way to screen for poverty, connect patients with social services like housing or food assistance, and avert poverty’s harmful health effects. Still, kids spend only a handful of hours a year, if any, in the doctor’s office.

“What our community development colleagues bring is expertise and resources to actually do something about neighborhood infrastructure and the social issues that drive poverty’s harmful effects,” said Doug Jutte, physician and executive director of the Build Healthy Places Network.

Community Coalitions to Serve all Children

UCLA researchers knew the importance of child development milestones, but until recently they lacked a way to measure how well a community was serving its children. In 2009, Neal Halfon, director of the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families & Communities, started working with the Canadian creators of EDI to bring it to the United States.

“We quickly realized we didn’t just want to create another tool or more data,” said Lisa Stanley, project director for TECCS. “We really wanted to create a system to support communities to use data in place-based, cross-sector collaboration work.”

“We really wanted to create a system to support communities to use data in place-based, cross-sector collaboration work.”

Today, after communities complete the EDI, TECCS staff helps early-childhood coalitions apply the data to create or modify programs and address underlying forces that cause children to be developmentally vulnerable — especially kids in low-income neighborhoods. That can mean a lack of access to affordable, high-quality childcare, neighborhood safety, healthy food, stable housing, or all of the above.

Stanley said communities also discover outliers. For example, a higher-income neighborhood that still lacks affordable, high-quality childcare options might find unexpectedly high vulnerabilities in some domains.

On the other hand, there are communities that find positive results in higher-risk neighborhoods. For example, a neighborhood group in New Orleans found its children were doing surprisingly well on one domain, and identified several specific programs and parent support groups that might be bolstering children’s developmental progress.

That, experts say, is why the EDI can be so valuable. It not only points out problems but shines a light on assets and reinforces the strengths of each neighborhood, thus, allowing for more targeted interventions and efficient community investments.

Takeaways in Texas

In Ector County, the biggest takeaway shocked many members of the community: Overall, 47 percent of children were developmentally vulnerable or at risk. And the results showed there were developmentally vulnerable children across the county, not only in low-income neighborhoods. In each of 12 neighborhoods in the county, 10 percent to 33 percent of children were not on track for kindergarten, meaning they scored under the 25th percentile in at least one developmental domain.

An Ector County neighborhood map showing the proportion of children who are vulnerable in one or more developmental domains. The darker the green, the higher proportion of vulnerable children. Map/UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families & Communities

First 5 Permian Basin presented the results to the Early Childhood Coalition in March 2015. The coalition is a group of some 50 education, government, social-service and faith-based groups that meet monthly to improve the region’s early childcare system. The coalition decided to use the data to target their efforts for 2015 and beyond. “We had a real commitment to data-driven decision making,” Myerson said.

First, the coalition noted how many kids countywide were lagging in social competence and emotional maturity. The Ector County Independent School District joined with childcare workers, daycare center staff, and youth service organizations to train staff on a developmentally appropriate strategy for managing behavior and self-regulation that the district says has been successful in its schools.

The coalition also noted how children on the west side were behind in language and cognitive skills. The coalition worked with Head Start sites and elementary schools to install Little Free Libraries in neighborhoods with the highest rate of vulnerable children. Little Free Libraries are what they sound like — wooden boxes with roofs, like generously sized bird houses, packed with books that people can take or leave as they please. One was put in a neighborhood 9 miles away from the nearest public library.

Children pick books from a Little Free Library. Photo/Odessa American

To address the fact that in half the neighborhoods, a quarter of children were struggling with gross motor skills, First 5 and University of Texas Permian Basin held two free weeklong summer camps for incoming kindergartners who had lacked access to preschool.

Finally, First 5 presented the EDI results to the city council, which incorporated several elements into its strategic plan.

“They got incredible buy-in from the city,” said Pat Bowie, who worked with Ector County as a consultant for TECCS. The city passed a resolution adopting First 5’s strategic plan. The assistant city manager, who had never been to Early Childhood Coalition meetings before, started attending monthly once he heard the EDI results and understood how many of the county’s children were struggling.

“There was criticism early on that our plan for the EDI results was too ambitious, that there were too many action steps,” Myseron said. “But the action steps are shared by many people, and we’ve had tremendous success at getting through.”

“If we measure ourselves by how well our children are thriving, that sets up a different target—and a different way of moving forward.”

Communities like Ector County are already using the EDI in a number of different, creative ways. But Neal Halfon at UCLA believes the EDI has further potential in the community development field as a more holistic way to measure impact of investments beyond just the number of people served.

“From a community and economic development perspective, the EDI is providing a new benchmark for you to gauge how well your investments are bearing fruit,” he said. The EDI, he said, could eventually show community development practitioners how their investments in say, housing, are working in conjunction with child care, education, or other sectors. And though it’s not happening yet, lessons learned from the changes in EDI results could perhaps steer effective investment decisions based on what works for vulnerable children.

“We often reduce things to crass economic evaluations,” Halfon said. “But if we start to say, ‘We are going to measure ourselves by how well our children are thriving,’ that sets up a different target, and a different way of moving forward.”

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This article is part of Crosswalk, a gathering place for stories that illustrate the deep connection between health and place, curated by the Build Healthy Places Network.

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