Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning

The University of Mississippi School of Education


We Reap What We Sow

History and literature are replete with quotations relative to paying for the decisions we make in the present at some point into the future, starting with the Bible in Galations 6:7, “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap.”

Our national and state leaders are making decisions that will have dramatic consequences in the not-so-distant future. As of September 30, 2017, Congress allowed two programs to expire that directly affect the well being of our nation’s children.  One, the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program funds scheduled home visits by trained health professionals to work with at-risk first-time parents on a variety of topics including nutrition, safety, and parenting skills. The program has been linked to improved academic outcomes for children, reduction in child abuse, and improved economic opportunities for the parents.

The second program that expired is the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) which covers 9 million children in lower and middle income families who earn too much to be eligible for Medicaid but not enough to pay for needed medical care. In the overwhelming majority of cases, these parents are working full-time to provide for their families, and some have private insurance, but cannot afford the cost of expensive medications and treatments that are necessary to keep their children healthy, and in many cases, alive.  Almost 50,000 children in Mississippi are covered under CHIP.

When pressed about investing in our youngest citizens and in the future of Mississippi, our leaders say essentially, “we can’t afford it.” Yet, Mississippi gets three dollars for every one dollar it sends the federal government under Medicaid, and the ground-breaking work by noted economist and Nobel Laureate Dr. James Heckman shows high quality early childhood programs can yield a 13% annual return on investment through reductions in the need for special education and remediation, social and health services, lower crime, and increased economic independence. It boils down to whether we will pay now, or pay more later.

Two recently released studies add to the body of knowledge on the importance of prenatal and infant health care.  Logan (2017) found that, for premature babies, the Score for Neonatal Acute Physiology-II was predictive of cognitive and neurodevelopmental impairments at the age of 10.  Another study (Fevang, 2017) reported that being born very prematurely or severely under weight was associated with behavioral problems later on.

Mississippi consistently ranks as one of the worst states for the percentages of premature and low-weight births, as well as infant mortality. Knowing that babies born prematurely or who weigh less than 5.5 pounds at birth are more likely to need special support once they are in school, it seems obvious that we should be doing everything we can to provide early intervention services that can mitigate against such a necessity.

Mississippi is one of eight states without a Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) program.  Research has found NFP programs to produce positive effects on parenting practices, home environments, and child outcomes.  State and federal government savings average $2.90 for every dollar invested and total benefits to society of $6.40 per dollar invested in NFP programs. (Miller, 2015)

First Steps, Mississippi’s Early Intervention program for infants and toddlers with disabilities, has consistently been woefully underfunded by the state and parents regularly complain of long waiting lists for assessments and minimal services. During the time when children are experiencing the most rapid development of their lives, a 10-month wait for services, worsened by inadequate services, can be detrimental.

Mississippi has experienced a steady increase in the numbers of students eligible for special education (U.S. Department of Education data), and we can expect the number to continue growing unless we intervene early to alter the life trajectory of our most vulnerable children. I certainly want every child with a disability who needs special education services to receive them, but I also know evidence shows we can prevent disabilities in some children with high-quality prenatal, infant & toddler care, and early intervention.

Stress during pregnancy, lack of adequate medical care and early intervention services result in long term problems that are more complicated and costly to address later in childhood, and the problems often persist into adulthood and diminish economic opportunities.  Our decision-makers are sowing seeds that will continue to reap multiple generations of individuals who need more assistance than our society is willing to provide.  Instead, let’s invest in research-based strategies that will produce stronger families and a stronger economy.

By Dr. Melody Musgrove




If we could only do it over….

Budgeting for the next fiscal year is taking a front and center position in Mississippi politics with initial presentations from state agencies being made to the legislative budget committee in the next few days. Most legislative watchers agree this is an exercise in futility as the “real” budget decisions are made during the legislative session.

In recent years, the decisions have been made behind closed doors with only a few senators and representatives in attendance. In the recent past, the recommended state budget is presented to members of the House of Representatives and Senate, and, without a robust and healthy debate, passed with members of both the House and Senate voting along party lines.

The result is, by their own admission, that the majority of state lawmakers who voted for it did not know what was in it and those who voted against it, knew even less.

As we start this again, we should note some of the programs affected by last year’s budget cuts:

  • The state portion of funding for childhood immunizations was cut in half, according to information provided to the PEER Committee by the Mississippi Department of Health.
  • Some early intervention staff, who are front line workers to support parents of children (age 0-3) with developmental delays, have been eliminated. Currently, there are no interventionist in the Oxford area to work with the 128 children and parents in the area who were clients, not to mention any new ones.
  • The Department of Mental Health will close a unit that houses mentally ill children and teenagers at East Mississippi State Hospital in Meridian within the next several months, which will increase the distance parents from the coast must drive to see their children.

As bad as this seems, the real tragedy is the failure we have made as a state to move forward in funding and growing crucial programs that support the healthy growth and development of young children.

The majority of funding for programs such as immunizations, food stamps, WIC (nutritious food provided to eligible low income families for pregnant women and young children), funds for low income childcare and technical assistance to childcare facilities, is allocated to the state from the Federal government. With an uncertain Federal outlook for funding health insurance for thousands of children and their parents in Mississippi, as well as  proposals for cutting funds for after school programs, professional development for teachers and on-campus childcare services for low income students at colleges and universities, we are in deep trouble.

If a “do-over” opportunity for legislative budget decisions existed, I wonder if the body still would have voted to:

  • Cut corporate taxes (Estimates show tax cuts will subtract $350 million from state revenue next year)
  • Cut state agency budgets, resulting in lay-offs and critical service reductions
  • Not increase higher education budgets, resulting in increases in tuition at some universities and community colleges
  • Not address the infrastructure repairs on roads and bridges
  • Not address the school funding formula and increase the education budget

If we fast forward 20 years, and the process for developing and approving state budgets is maintained as it is now and state revenue remains sluggish, we may well see:

  • Roads and bridges closed in many counties, making it impossible for children to get to school and parents to work without going miles out of the way
  • A teacher shortage resulting in school consolidations and high school students missing out on higher level coursework because qualified math and science teachers left the state years ago
  • An increase in children failing the state literacy examination in the third grade because the number of state-funded pre-K programs has not increased
  • More children with serious developmental delays and emotional issues will go untreated and without life-changing interventions so they are kept at home resulting in a loss of one parent’s income
  • An increase in local taxes to maintain basic educational services such as school district building and bus repairs
  • A rise in once non-existent childhood illnesses due to a reduction in immunization funding
  • A slow-down in business relocation to Mississippi and possible plant closings because the quality of life is not competitive with other states and a lack of skilled workers

For skeptics who are inclined to say I have over-stated the problems in the future, our friends in Kansas have tried to tell us, don’t go down this path. Reported in Mississippi Today: “If Mississippi fails to pay attention to what’s going on here, they do that at their peril,” said Kansas Sen. Randall Hardy, a Republican who was elected in 2016 on the sole platform of fixing the state’s tax code. “Tax cuts, especially significant ones, should be looked at very carefully before implementing them. Our experience here was not positive. The desired results never happened. We did not see any of the increases in job creation that were supposed to happen, we did not see the tax rolls increase.”

Do you think we can get a “do-over”?

By Dr. Cathy Grace


Jesus Might Love the Little Children of All Colors, But Do We?

             I grew up a Methodist surrounded by Southern Baptists in rural Arkansas. It was their mission to save my soul, so I was included in the weekly Sunbeams group at their church. It was there that I remember learning the song, Jesus Loves the Little Children of the World.

Those lyrics, which remind us that Jesus loves all the children of the world, red, brown, yellow, black and white…come back to me as I try to make sense of the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

For young children who are repeatedly seeing the televised images of flags with crooked symbols on them flying above the crowds of marchers, flames coming from torches held by White people with angry faces, fighting in the streets and “graphic” scenes of violence between people—some White and some Black—that song about Jesus loving everybody is drowned out and replaced with cursing, name calling and screams.

For children who hear their parents, teachers and state and national leaders expressing remarks that indicate they are taking sides with the protestors who promote hate, it can have a long lasting impact.

A quote attributed to Byron Staley is very pertinent at this time in relating the current events to the country’s future. “Children are born without prejudice. Their minds like un-molded clay. They are so accepting of the world around them. It’s one of the many beautiful things about a child’s heart.” I agree with Mr. Staley, children are born without prejudice, but they are accepting of the world around them—good or bad. What kind of world are adults creating today that children will inherit in a few short years?

There is no justification for hate. None. Hate is unnatural. However, children who grow up in hate-filled environments know nothing but hate and carry its burden into adulthood.

Demonstrators carrying signs and flags symbolizing the superiority of one race over another were not born to feel or express their superiority over those different from themselves. Something (or someone) changed the life path of these individuals to embrace and act upon the need they have to feel superior over others who they view as inferior, for whatever reason.

The results of a study conducted in 2012 by researchers including Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a renowned Harvard University psychologist, brain researcher and prejudice expert, suggests that even though they may not understand the “why’’ of their feelings, children exposed to racism tend to accept and embrace it as young as age 3, and in just a matter of days. Banaji suggests that the formation of beliefs that will lead to racism in later years can be off set by parents and teachers exposing young children to children and adults who are of different races interacting in positive environments where one race is not dominate over another and everyone in the group setting is given equal respect and treatment by those in charge.

The complexities of racism make it impossible to address in a blog or even a book of reflections, theories or research studies. As complex as it is, it is also simple. Every person of faith and concern for the future of our country must stop trying to be right and start being smart. Regardless if children are raised in Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Christian faith-based homes or in homes where religion is not a focus, they are going to pay the price of the “sins of their fathers” if this continues.

Yes, Christians say they believe Jesus loves all the children of the world, but how do they show it? The lessons being taught today will either result in repeating our past sins or serve as a beginning to chart a new course for our country where we elect leaders who act as if we are all valued as individuals.

Most importantly: Will these lessons teach us as citizens to demonstrate daily respect for all people we encounter, regardless of race, gender, income status or religion?  Or will they pass us by and fall on deaf ears and a blind eye?

Our children are watching and learning.

By Dr. Cathy Grace

Paying The Price Costs More Than We Think

The incarceration of a child’s parent does more than punish the adult. This fact was revealed by a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

Mass Incarcerations and Children’s Outcomes is a sobering report outlining the damage the parent’s absence as a result of incarceration does to the development of the child.  According to Mississippi Broadcasting 55,000 children in Mississippi are affected by the incarceration of one or both parents. To put that statistic into perspective, approximately 40,000 babies are born annually in the state, so the number of children affected by the incarceration of a parent exceeds the entire number of births in a year.

According to the Sentencing Project’s report in 2016, The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons, more than half of the prison population in Mississippi is African American. The Sentencing Project also reports data stating two-thirds of inmates in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections who have been sentenced to life without parole (meaning they will die imprisoned) are African American. According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections more than 19,000 Mississippians are incarcerated as of June 2017. These figures do not reflect individuals serving time in local and some county jails.

Specific problems have been identified through national research on the development and school performance of children who have an incarcerated parent when compared to children without an incarcerated parent. The children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to have:

  • speech or language problems—like stuttering or stammering
  • declining GPAs
  • a completion rate of fewer years of school than children of non-incarcerated fathers
  • developmental delays
  • worse physical and mental health conditions
  • no permanent home

Unfortunately, every year more teachers are faced with the reality of teaching students to whom incarceration of a parent is part of the family dynamic. The EPI report suggests that if educators and criminal justice officials join forces to examine current state laws which determine the length of sentencing for minor drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes and increase the number and quality of programs that support social, educational and employment programs for released offenders, the negative impact of incarcerated parents on thousands of children could be minimized.

Nothing can replace the time a parent misses with their child, but everything can be gained when the parent makes a life choice that results in them becoming a positive and permanent presence in their child’s life.

By Dr. Cathy Grace

Hunger for Knowledge is Second Place to Being Hungry

Growing up I was fortunate. My father owned a country store so we always had plenty of food to eat, he made sure of that. In retrospect, I really had too much food to eat as evidenced by my lifelong struggle with weight gain. I was reminded a few weeks ago that for many children, both then and now, that was not and is not the case. Our staff was engaged in a teacher training session in a town in the Mississippi Delta when a knock on the door of the training room was heard. A participant opened the door and found a young boy looking in at the group. He asked if we had any food. He was given some snacks and sent on his way.

When the local teachers were asked about the frequency of children requesting food, they responded that children in the neighborhood often come at lunch time looking for food from the staff. They deduced this was probably due to the fact that the children assumed someone had food there even though the school site was not part of the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) which was in other schools in the district. This national program is administered by the USDA, which ensures that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session.

According to the USDA, the estimated prevalence rates of food insecurity during 2013-15 ranged from 8.5 percent in North Dakota to 20.8 percent in Mississippi. For years, The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been the cornerstone of the nation’s nutrition assistance safety net, offsetting the cost of food for those who qualify. Benefits are available to most people who meet the financial and nonfinancial requirements, and the program serves a broad spectrum of low income people. In Fiscal Year 2015, SNAP provided about $0.92 billion dollars in food benefits to a monthly average of 636,322 people in Mississippi. The program served 82.8 percent of Mississippians eligible for benefits in 2014. In 2017, the USDA released a report on SNAP benefit distribution that listed every Congressional District in Mississippi. The report stated more than 50 percent of families statewide receiving SNAP benefits had children under 18 years of age.

To combat hunger in our state, we have to acknowledge it exists and contributes to health issues plaguing our citizens. As previously stated, Mississippi leads the nation in food insecure households. Low-income individuals are at increased risk for both food insecurity and obesity. Lower-income individuals often have more limited access to affordable, healthier food options — living in neighborhoods with fewer grocery stores with less healthy options — and that have more available less expensive food options, such as processed or fast foods, are of lower nutritional value and are calorie-dense with added sugar and/or fats. In addition, some families have cycles of food deprivation and overindulgence — where they restrict or skip meals sometimes due to lack of funds — which can contribute to increased risk for obesity.

One reason we must combat hunger in our state is due to how it negatively impacts learning. According to Feeding America, hungry children are more likely to repeat a grade in school, experience developmental delays and have more social and emotional problems.

To further reduce hunger in Mississippi, we must not allow the funding of the SNAP program to be jeopardized by a reduction in federal funding or a shift to move the financial responsibility to states. This plan, proposed by the current administration, would be devastating to hundreds of thousands of Mississippians.

Communities across the state are trying to fill in the gaps with weekend food packs for students and summer feeding programs that are not government sponsored to offset the limited access to the school-based feeding programs in some communities, but more must be done.

My Daddy’s memories of growing up hungry stayed with him throughout his life time. They would manifest themselves from time to time in unexpected ways, but at his death in his mid-eighties, he was still asking if we had enough to eat at every meal we ate together. Given my experiences, is it fair to ask, what memory will the young boy who knocked on the door asking for food carry with him and what will be the effects?

By Dr. Cathy Grace

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