Back-to-School for Our Youngest Learners – How Pre-K Roots Our Kids in a Healthy Start

By Mark Del Monte, CEO/Executive Vice President of the American Academy of Pediatrics

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The start of Pre-Kindergarten is a milestone. For the child, it is their first experience entering school, and  for their caregivers it is an emotional moment seeing their child grow up and go to “big kids” school, and for communities it brings new opportunities to support the education and health of its youngest residents.

Researchers have long shown that children benefit enormously from high quality Pre-K. Kids enter school better prepared, ready to learn, and are less likely to repeat a grade later on. Pre-K also accounts for increased high school graduation rates and increased years of education completed.

At the American Academy of Pediatrics, we know that the benefits of Pre-K extend far beyond the classroom—they support building healthier children, healthier families and healthier communities. In fact, early childhood programs—including Pre-K—have been identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “one of the most important and effective policies available to improve population health.” The medical, active living, and healthy eating interventions that take place in Pre-K have beneficial effects far into adulthood.

On any given day in a Pre-K program, children are greeted by name as they enter the classroom and are often encouraged to share how they feel during a morning meeting or as a part of attendance—teaching them how to identify emotions and how to address them. Kids are provided a nutritious breakfast and are taught about fruits and vegetables—A is for Apple—giving them their first lessons in healthy eating tips. Through centers, Pre-K students are taught how to share, how to play cooperatively, and how to make their own decisions in a monitored environment. Often, Pre-K classrooms and the schools they are a part of provide a central location for health screenings.

All of these daily activities produce children and families that are more likely to visit a doctor, receive immunizations and screenings, and make the cognitive and social-emotional gains that are associated with improved health as they grow up. But less than a quarter of cities recently studied by CityHealth and the National Institute of Early Education Research are ensuring that their Pre-K programs provide vision, hearing, health, and developmental screenings—a crucial element that sets children up for success.

High-quality Pre-K has the power to be a game changer for communities across the nation and cities. In Boston, improving access and quality have been high on Mayor Marty Walsh’s list. Just recently, the city committed to invest $15 million in a “Quality Pre-K Fund” to “guarantee equitable access to free, high-quality pre-kindergarten (pre-K) for all 4-year-olds living in Boston within five years.” Seattle is providing mental health and health services at its Pre-K provider locations through its Public Health Seattle and King County Child Care Health Program, and researchers found that in New York, the health screenings in Pre-K helped to increase identification of health concerns early.

By investing in Pre-K, these cities and more across the nation are making the grade by prioritizing a healthier and more educated community. Explore your city’s rating and learn more about how this policy helps create healthier children, families, and communities.