Terri Ludwig: Investing in learning begins at birth

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By Terri Ludwig, President, Ballmer Group Philanthropy

When my son was born, I was fascinated by how quickly a baby’s brain develops. My little guy was like a sponge, imitating my facial expressions and learning how to respond to the words I read and sang to him. And if he wasn’t learning from me, I knew that he was with my husband or the qualified caregivers we fortunately had the resources to engage.

 Now that I’m helping Connie and Steve Ballmer allocate their giving across all stages of a child’s life, I’m learning about the research that supports my intuition – birth to age three is a critical time to optimize brain development. My colleague Dr. Raychael Jensen has taught me that children make more than one million new neural connections per second (!) during their first few years of life, which helps set the foundation for their future learning, behavior, and health.

I’m also challenged to think about where philanthropic dollars can make the most significant impact on economic mobility. Quality early childhood education is a great investment, as it can help prevent a host of other issues. For example, when vulnerable kids do not get quality early childhood experiences, they are more likely to drop out of school, more likely to become teen parents, and less likely to attend college – all of which affects their future economic mobility. New research shows that such investments for disadvantaged kids produce gains even across multiple generations.

Given the data, it’s baffling why our nation underinvests in our little ones. The return on investment for early childhood care and education is higher than any other stage of development, yet public spending is lowest for children under the age of three. Access to quality experiences is disproportionate - less than half of children experiencing poverty have access to high-quality early childhood programs.

At Ballmer Group, we use our philanthropy and civic activism to enable systems to evolve and better meet the needs of people experiencing poverty. As Connie and Steve point out, we know that philanthropy alone can’t solve this issue. We need to inspire significant public investment. That’s why one of our strategies is to invest in strong state advocacy to stimulate policy changes that can broaden opportunities for young children.

Even with the privileges I experienced, I remember vividly how difficult it felt to be a working mom with a young child. I am in awe of what parents experiencing poverty do every day – juggle several jobs, commute long distances, sacrifice their own needs – with the intention of giving their kids a shot at moving up. We want to meet that determination with the support that sets up our youngest children – and their parents – for success. We can and must do better for our nation’s kids during their earliest years, so that the American Dream can truly be in reach for all.