This KET special report examines early childhood development in Kentucky. Experts discuss the importance of exposing children to reading, conversation, playing, and other activities during the first years of life to establish a foundation for learning. Parents, caregivers, and educators talk about the benefits of placing young children in structured educational settings, and policymakers detail recent efforts to increase pay for child care workers and support early childhood education facilities.
Here are five key takeaways from the program:
1) During the first few years of life, a child’s brain develops quickly, forming more than 1 million neural connections every second. More than 90 percent of a child’s brain develops before the age of 5. It is therefore crucial for parents and caregivers – a child’s first teachers – to begin building a foundation for lifelong learning by engaging their children in fun, supportive, and educational activities.
Dr. Donna Grigsby, division chief of general academic pediatrics at Kentucky Children’s Hospital, says a child’s developmental needs actually begin before they are born, requiring prenatal support to mitigate the effects of stress on both the mother and child. Once a child enters the world, the learning process begins.
Even in infancy, children need to be exposed to reading, verbal communication, and physical activity. Ashley Brandt, director of early care and education with Metro United Way, says once kids are able to walk, they can start to practice gross motor skills like jumping and crawling as well as using their hands to shape Play-Doh or cut with age-appropriate scissors.
Reading to children, even well before they begin talking, helps to fire language pathways in the brain that will grow stronger and more complex with repetition, says pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Porter. It also reinforces trust between child and adult. She recommends parents to schedule a regular reading time - a book at bedtime, for example – as soon as possible.
“Even if it seems like they’re not listening, or when they become toddlers, parents become frustrated they’re eating the books, they’re turning the page and not letting the parents read, all of those are valuable experiences,” says Porter. “If you open the book and they close it, talk about what’s on the back cover, talk about the colors. It’s not always about the words that are in the book, but using it as a tool for learning.”
Grigsby stresses that children need to develop learning skills in an attentive and nurturing environment. She says studies show that children who don’t have this caring support system during their early years have a higher risk of falling behind once school starts. For those elementary-age kids, it’s difficult to catch up even with assistance, and the effects can last into adulthood. Grigsby points out that prison officials use test results of local third grade students as one metric to estimate future incarceration rates.
“Most of our academic success is during our school years, but the ability to have that academic success starts prenatally and also in those first years of a child’s brain development,” Grigsby says. “We know that if there’s a gap there, you can start to overcome it, but you may never be able to completely overcome it.”
Kentucky uses an assessment tool called BRIGANCE to measure a child’s readiness for kindergarten, Brandt says. “We have data that is showing where children are starting on that first day of kindergarten,” she explains. “That data shows that children who are ready on that first day are more likely to be on track in third grade for their reading and their math scores.”
2) Educational support programs are available in Kentucky to help parents and caregivers during these important years. However, securing affordable and dependable child care services is difficult for many families.
According to Grigsby, early childhood education starts at home with activities centered around conversations, reading, counting, memory building, and playing. To help this process, KET has partnered with the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky’s Office of Early Childhood to develop the Let’s Learn Kentucky website. This resource hub empowers caregivers with tools and knowledge to help them in educating their children.
Another initiative, the HANDS program (Health Access Nurturing Development Services), teaches caregivers how to help children reach their full potential by assisting them in the first months and years of a child’s life. This assistance includes home visitation sessions that use a science-based curriculum to introduce early learning activities for both parents and kids.
For parents and caregivers in Lexington, the First 5 Lex program was developed by a group of educators and advocates including Whitney Stevenson, Ph.D., director of early childhood education at Fayette County Public Schools. Stevenson says First 5 Lex promotes the basic building blocks of learning discussed above – reading, talking, and playing – using various educational tools.
Also in Lexington, seniors at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School operate a preschool for kids. While helping to grow young minds, the teens earn hours toward a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential they can use after they graduate and pursue a child care career. High schoolers assist in the preschool during their junior year and gradually work their way into being responsible for lesson plans.
“I’m definitely getting my CDA because I always wanted to work with children since I was younger,” says senior Jada Maupin. “I feel like this is a profession for me, which is why I want to finish school and get my elementary education degree, and I just really love the kids here.”
Finding a good child care organization that offers educational activities is crucial for working families, but the current child care system in Kentucky and across the U.S. is inaccessible to many parents and caregivers due to several factors. Many areas in the commonwealth lack child care options, especially in rural counties, and the high costs of running a child care business – even as employees working there make modest salaries – make the fees they charge prohibitive for some families.
“We know that a lot of times, there are barriers to families to accessing that care,” says Ashley Brandt. “If you are just trying to survive, we can’t put more on top of that. We need to meet those basic needs before we can start asking families to do more and provide resources for families to thrive. Child care is a big one of those (resources) because it allows families to work or to go back to school and have a stable income, so that’s a big piece of the puzzle.”
3) For families that may not be able to afford child care, programs such as Head Start and Early Head Start offer valuable assistance to families that qualify based on income or if their child is disabled. The free programs are designed to promote school readiness for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.
In Kentucky, half of young children entering kindergarten need extra educational support, and Head Start (ages 3 and up) and Early Head Start (up to age 3) can help provide that assistance to children from low-income families or those with disabilities. Their programs stress developing literacy, mathematics, and social and emotional skills kids need as they move from a family setting to the classroom, says Vaughn Nebbitt, vice president of early childhood services at Family and Children’s Place in Louisville.
Family support is also provided, Vaughn adds. “I think when we work with our families, we’re looking to see if there are resources we need to put into place to help the mothers, fathers, and caregivers to meet the needs that they have overall,” he says, “whether that’s getting food for their family, or (developing) job skills and education. I think that’s the most important thing about Head Start – that it’s a comprehensive, holistic approach to supporting the family.”
At Head Start’s Auburndale Learning Academy in south Louisville, children such as 5-year-old Alexis Williams are learning the alphabet, counting, and making friends as they prepare for kindergarten and elementary school.
“I can see a change in her communication and social skills, even with me,” says Alexis’ father Anthony. “She can sit there and hold a conversation, explain herself when she’s hurt or feeling good, so I see the greatness of things in her coming from here.”
Children who attend Head Start are 19 percent more likely to graduate from college than those who did not.
4) Improving and expanding child care services in Kentucky is necessary to bring more kids into the kinds of supportive environments that will stimulate early learning. Current initiatives ranging from targeted outreach in rural areas to proposed legislation offering millions in state funding aim to solve the problem.
According to Kentucky Youth Advocates, half of all Kentuckians live in so-called child care deserts. Those are communities with more than three times as many children under age 5 as there are spaces in local child care centers.
One innovative child care approach is reaching kids in Perry County. Rosie the Readiness Bus, launched with funding from Save the Children, has the goal of introducing children ages 3-5 living in rural areas to regular educational activities, including story reading, spelling and counting lessons, and play time.
“We give out one book per week – 52 books per year,” says Kim Bolling, kindergarten readiness ambassador for the program. “We’ve been able to use Rosie the Readiness Bus to take the tools we have – the resources, the materials, the books, the information – and support their families. We’re able to go to them when they can’t come to us, and I feel like the mobile programming has been a huge blessing.”
On the other side of the commonwealth, Easterseals West Kentucky has provided educational resources to children with varying degrees of abilities for over 75 years. At its Child Development Center in Paducah, infants, toddlers, and preschool-age kids engage in a variety of activities that build basic literacy, math, science, and social skills. The center also offers medical services and physical therapy.
“We always hear from teachers that our kids are some of the best prepared kids they have,” says state Sen. Danny Carroll (R-Benton), CEO of Easterseals West Kentucky. As a parent of a child with cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability, Carroll believes Easterseals programs – which give priority to children with special needs – provide essential services to families in his home region.
The senator is also committed to broad reform of the child care industry in Kentucky in order to make services available and affordable to all families that need them. Starting in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government provided billions of dollars in child care assistance to states, with millions going to Kentucky. That funding stopped in 2023, and in early 2024, Carroll introduced a bill in the Kentucky General Assembly requesting approximately $150 million per year to replace the federal moneys.
“We don’t have enough child care as it stands today to cover the demand that’s out there,” Carroll says. “So the priority has got to be to keep centers open… The most rewarding part of this job is to see a kid come in in a wheelchair or being carried, and then three or four years later, they walk out of here and are going to school. That’s as good as it gets.”
5) Attracting and keeping a well-trained and dedicated workforce at child care centers is the most pressing issue within the industry, and this must be achieved in order to make early childhood education accessible to every family that needs it.
“It costs more to produce a high-quality child care program than parents can afford to pay, it’s that simple,” says Linda Smith, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childhood Initiative. Smith says the current child care model is unsustainable both from a business perspective and in how it fails to meet families’ needs. Those who would argue against increased government support of child care services should understand that it is an investment in human potential that pays off down the road, she reasons.
“One of the things that we know is that the consistency and quality of adult-child interactions is the single biggest indictor of later child outcomes,” Smith says. “What we’ve got right now in our country is a problem with a lot of turnover and churn within the early childhood workforce.” That results, she says, in people working in child care jobs that they aren’t fully trained and prepared to do.
Smith says that a change in Kentucky’s licensing regulations for child care centers made in 2023 waived child care costs for persons who work at the facilities, enabling the employees to enroll their own kids for free.
“All early indications are that it is having a stabilizing effect on the child care workforce in your state,” Smith says.
Sarah Vanover, policy and research director for Kentucky Youth Advocates, explains that subsidizing child care expenses for child care workers also benefits the centers, as many of them offered discounts to their workers before this program took effect in 2023.
“Kentucky was the first state in the nation to do this,” she adds. “We are getting so much national attention right now – 37 states have reached out and asked about it.”
As it stands, the average hourly wage for child care workers in Kentucky is $12.39, according to Vanover. “We know that 98 percent of professions make more than child care providers, and that includes dog walkers,” she says.
Kentucky’s business community recognizes that issues with child care affordability and access impact workforce development in all sectors. Many parents – especially mothers – may have to quit their jobs to stay home and care for their young children if they can’t enroll them.
“Child care is absolutely a barrier for some to work,” says Kate Shanks, senior vice president of public affairs with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. “It could be (because), ‘Do I even have any child care providers in my community? Can I afford it? Do I have providers that serve when I’m working?’” Shanks recalls the difficulty in getting her own kids into quality child care facilities more than a decade ago, and says that over 1,000 centers have closed since then.
Some policymakers want to address the child care shortage in Kentucky by making pre-kindergarten mandatory and have it administered through the public education system. But Mike Hammons, vice president of advocacy at Learning Grove, a child care center in northern Kentucky, says implementing this major change in public schools could make the current system worse.
“The problem with universal pre-K as it relates to preschool is that it draws 3- and 4-year-olds out of the child care system, and 3- and 4-year-olds subsidize the costs of infants and toddlers,” Hammons explains. “If it is to go forward, it’s important that (pre-K) be a mixed-delivery approach where schools would apply the experience of working with these grants and local Head Start and child care providers to expand options.”
“When we look at what parents need in order to be a productive part of the workforce, child care is at the top of the list,” Vanover says. “For many years, people viewed child care as a woman’s issue or a family issue, but it’s not – it’s an economic issue.”