What We Don’t Know About Young Children Limits Effective Policymaking


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As we emerge from the pandemic, many important questions have arisen among policymakers, advocates, social service providers and state residents. They’re wondering – and rightly so – what were the impacts, what did we learn, and how can we improve systems in the future?

Many have reached out to the Connecticut Data Collaborative, a statewide organization dedicated to making data more accessible and using data to drive decision-making, asking for data that will help to answer such pivotal questions.

We have several projects underway, one of which is looking at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young children in Hartford. What we have learned, however, is that data on young children are collected by multiple entities and many gaps remain. In some instances, data do not exist for the questions we are seeking to answer. At CTData, we have been grappling with these data gaps and the challenge of piecing together data from disparate sources to create a wholistic understanding of the system of care for young children.

One source of valuable information is 211. When Connecticut residents are interested in exploring childcare options, they can call 211 or visit 211childcare.org to get information on childcare providers in their area. 211 Child Care also conducts annual surveys of childcare providers on enrollments and vacancies. This survey provides valuable information on whether there are enough child care slots available to meet families’ needs.   

Many communities across the state, including Bridgeport and Hartford, are trying to understand why a large percentage of children entering Kindergarten appear not to be developmentally on target. What is happening from birth to age 5 that these children are either being missed or not served sufficiently to enable them to reach their full potential? When trying to understand children’s well-being and developmental progress, we have pieces of the puzzle – from pediatricians to preschool programs including Head Start– but these pieces are held in disconnected data systems and some pieces are missing entirely.

One promising method for helping to ensure that all children are meeting developmental targets is a recent initiative by the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood to make developmental screening freely available and accessible to all Connecticut parents via the Sparkler app. Any parent or caregiver in Connecticut can download the app for free and get access to developmental screenings, suggestions for quick and easy activities to support their children’s development, and connections with community-based resources as needed.

Even though this makes screening children for developmental delays highly accessible and childcare providers across the state are strongly encouraged to use Sparkler with their families, adoption of this promising tool is still in its early days since it was only launched in 2021 to five communities. If use of the Sparkler app becomes more widespread across Connecticut, this would both provide parents with a valuable resource for supporting their own children’s development and it would yield community-level data on children’s rates of on-track development that could inform program and policy decisions.

Pediatricians also bill for child screenings and referrals and this information can be seen in Medicaid data. The Department of Social Services has provided us with this data for cities in Connecticut with at least 40% of residents receiving Medicaid. The data reveal, however, that systems improvements appear necessary. Of the 2,286 one-year-olds receiving Medicaid in Bridgeport, Hartford and Waterbury, fewer than one in ten (204) were identified by their pediatrician as needing a service referral. However, multi-year data from Head Start in Bridgeport suggests more than one in two (and as many as three in four) children entering Head Start at age three are not consistently hitting age-expected milestones.  

At CTData’s statewide conference on May 4, we plan to discuss how to build data systems to address data gaps and challenges. By looking across a system, we hope to help identify mechanisms for improvement. I am excited to be a partner in the new CT 359 initiative that is a data informed collaboration to understand the well-being of young children.  

Here’s some of what we do know.  According to the fiscal year 2022 Annual Data Report for the state’s Birth to Three system, nearly 20 agencies were providing services to infants and toddlers with a high likely of developmental delays, and their families. The initiative supported families who speak 44 different languages. The number of participating agencies, however, had dropped by nearly one-third compared with the pre-COVID fiscal year of 2019. 

A report last summer from the Connecticut Association for Human Services estimated that public and private childcare centers in Connecticut were serving 24,000 fewer children than before the pandemic, with enrollment at about 75% of capacity – not because fewer families need care, but because they were unable to hire sufficient staff to fill vacant positions.

These data underscore the importance of more comprehensive information about the systems serving Connecticut’s youngest children. The various systems providing support services for young children and their families – for example, home visiting, Birth to Three, and preschool special education – all collect data on participating families and children in disconnected data systems, and these data systems are also disconnected from children’s childcare, preschool, and school records. Integrating these data systems could make a difference in policy development, and in everyone’s understanding of the critical challenges facing Connecticut’s young children.

Governor Lamont recently appointed a Blue-Ribbon Panel on Childcare, charged with developing a strategic plan for a childcare system that works for families, providers, and Connecticut’s economy. Public listening sessions are planned for May, June, July and November as their work proceeds. 

At the outset, “current challenges” including access to and cost of childcare, and workforce shortages have been identified. Not included – at least thus far – is the opportunity to undertake a thorough analysis of the early childhood data that Connecticut has, and what we don’t have. Recommendations on how data collection and analysis can be improved so as to maximize the use of data to inform decisions by policy professionals in state agencies and nonprofit organizations could be consequential.

The effectiveness of solutions is often limited by our understanding of the problems. Data strengthens our knowledge and informs our perspective. That’s why we need to do more if we are to do what’s best for Connecticut’s young children and ultimately for all the residents of our state.

Michelle Riordan-Nold is Executive Director of the Connecticut Data Collaborative. Information about the CTData Conference and additional data literacy and accessibility initiatives are available at www.ctdata.org