COMMENTARY: A call to invest wisely in Delaware’s future

In recent years, our state has invested wisely in quality early learning. But as our FY17 state budget is being finalized, $4.3 million in proposed cuts to early learning program funds threatens to jeopardize services to children of low-income working families. We can only provide a great start for all Delaware children with fully funded programs that cultivate successful future citizens in the crucial developmental years — from birth to age 5.

Quality early learning helps children develop key character skills — “soft skills” — which, when present, produce better students, a better workforce, and ultimately, better communities. By investing in high quality early learning now, we will best position Delaware businesses to maintain higher productivity, profits and performance because the future workforce will be more confident, competent and better able to build synergetic relationships with their colleagues and customers. This will decrease the need to invest in remedial social/emotional behavior training.

Soft skills drive business success. They are the foundation for exponential personal and professional growth throughout all stages and aspects of life. The term “soft skills” refers to any number of non-cognitive, character skills such as: motivation, self-confidence, attentiveness, cooperation, sociability, and teamwork. It is plain to see how and why skills like these are integral for producing successful students, employees, and members of society.

S. Renee Smith

S. Renee Smith

Despite the importance of soft skills, there is a growing consensus among employers that they are increasingly elusive in the workforce. In 2013, Adecco USA— U.S. branch of the global HR solutions provider — conducted its State of the Economy Survey. Adecco found that 44 percent of surveyed senior executives believe Americans are lacking soft skills.

Workers lacking soft skills pose a problem for employers. Because character development begins at infancy, training employees to shift how they see themselves, others and the world around them is a difficult, time-consuming and costly process. Enter high-quality early learning.

High-quality early learning prepares children for success throughout their standard years of schooling, and beyond. This is because it helps them develop soft skills from the earliest age possible. Ninety percent of a child’s brain develops from birth to age 5, making that window a critical time for fostering character skills.

Nobel Prize-winning economics professor James J. Heckman has conducted extensive research supporting the economic value of investing in quality early learning, especially for at-risk children. A recurring mantra of Heckman’s research is “skills beget skills.” Quality early learning begins to develop the much sought after soft skills prior to a child’s entrance into primary schooling: preparing young children to be more successful students and future citizens.

In Delaware, 43 percent of all young children (birth – age 5) live in low-income families [nccp.org]. This means that 43 percent of our children are the least likely to have access to sufficient developmental stimulation, putting them at an even greater disadvantage when they begin school, and ultimately, setting Delaware up for having a less successful and efficient workforce.

There’s no guesswork involved in estimating the economic value of investing in high-quality early learning. Heckman’s research indicates “a 7-10 percent per year return on investment based on increased school and career achievement as well as reduced costs in remedial education, health and criminal justice system expenditures.”

With a return on investment that high, there’s no denying that putting time and money back into high-quality early learning is a sound decision for us to make because it makes our children and the future of Delaware better.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Renee Smith is a nationally recognized self-esteem and branding expert and coach, speaker, and co-author of “Self-Esteem for Dummies.” She helps employees of Fortune 500 corporations, entrepreneurs and individuals overcome a limiting mindset, identify their mission, craft a message and create a brand that they can package, position and promote in the marketplace.

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