The Environment of Early Childhood Development in Rhode Island
There are about 100,000 children age eight and younger in Rhode Island. Their experiences during early childhood will shape them for years to come. Supportive, well-resourced caregivers and safe, positive home environments contribute to children’s physical, social, and emotional development.1 A constructive foundation lays the groundwork for children to become healthy, stable, successful adults.
This report examines the characteristics of households and parents of children age eight and under in Rhode Island. By better understanding the parental and environmental circumstances in which children are raised in the state, we can identify opportunities to support families and steer children on a healthy trajectory to adulthood.
The Importance of Early Childhood
Early childhood, defined by the World Health Organization as ages zero through eight, is a critical developmental phase. A child’s progress during this time has a lifelong impact on their physical and mental health, social engagement and behavior, educational and employment success, and overall well-being.1
During early childhood, the brain is developing rapidly and laying down patterns that will be in place for the rest of a child’s life.2 Our current understanding acknowledges the importance of both genes and environment – and the interaction between the two – in shaping the process of childhood brain development.3 A child’s environment and social interactions, particularly with caregivers, play a major role in influencing their cognitive, behavioral, social, physical, and mental development.
The role of parents and other caregivers is particularly important, as they are among the earliest influences on a child’s emotional life and socialization. In early childhood, the care, affection, and approval of caregivers helps children develop a sense of self and of their relationship to others.4 Children also learn social skills and behavioral norms from their caregivers.
A child’s physical and socioeconomic environment also has a significant impact on their future. The characteristics of a child’s home (such as overcrowding), neighborhood (prosperity, crime, etc.), and family (for example, availability of family members to supervise and provide care) all influence their development. Parental struggles with socio-economic disadvantages are associated with intellectual disabilities and developmental delays in children.5
Part 1: Households with Young Children in Rhode Island
Part 2: Parents of Young Children in Rhode Island
Implications for Rhode Island's Children & Families
Many young children in Rhode Island are growing up with parents who are employed, well-educated, and earning a livable income. However, as this analysis reveals, a number of families face challenges that can make life harder for their children.
One in five Rhode Island households with young children earn less than $25,000 annually. Nearly a quarter of these households are not on food stamps, raising concerns about whether these children are receiving adequate nutrition. One in ten parents of young children do not have a high school degree and the same share are without health insurance. Twelve percent of parents of young children are not citizens and may not be able to access the same rights or benefits as other parents. These socio-economic challenges make it harder for parents to provide a positive foundation for their children.
Another important finding from this research is the reduced economic power of mothers compared to fathers. While mothers of young children have roughly the same level of education as fathers, they are significantly less likely to be working and they earn substantially less, even when working full-time. More than a quarter of Rhode Island households with young children are led by single mothers, and half of these female-headed households earn less than $25,000 a year.
The prevalence of low-income parenthood in America and the burden of responsibility on single mothers are not new. Policies and programs that target specific conditions (poverty) and specific demographics (single mothers) can play an important role in ensuring all children grow up with the resources and conditions they need to thrive. Outreach through community partnerships with immigrant organizations and women’s centers can help reach the families that are most vulnerable. This outreach could build on existing initiatives in Rhode Island focused on early childhood development, such as Early Intervention, Head Start, Early Learning, and Child Care Assistantship Programs.
Supporting children and their parents is a long-term social and economic investment. Early childhood development sets the patterns that children will follow into their adult lives, determining their future health, education, employment, and well-being.2 Investing in children now will help shape Rhode Island’s future in a positive direction.
1. Irwin, Lori G., Arjumand Siddiqi, and Clyde Hertzman (2007) Early Child Development: A Powerful Equalizer, Vancouver, Canada: Human Early Learning Partnership.
2. UNICEF (Undated) “Early Childhood Development: The key to a full and productive life,” Retrieved January 2017.
3. Keating, Daniel P. (2012) Nature and Nurture in Early Child Development, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
4. Kendall, Diane (2006) Sociology in Our Times, Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning. Mead, George Herbert (1934) Mind, Self and Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
5. Emerson, Eric, and Philip Bringham (2014) “The Developmental Health of Children of Parents with Intellectual Disabilities: Cross Sectional Study,” Research in Developmental Disabilities, 35(4): 917-921. Schady, Norbert (2011) “Parents' Education, Mothers' Vocabulary, and Cognitive Development in Early Childhood: Longitudinal Evidence From Ecuador,” American Journal of Public Health, 101(12): 2299-2307.
Type of Research