Early education experts converge in Minneapolis to find best outcomes for babies

Three Black women sit at a table
Speakers at the Zero to Three LEARN Conference at Minneapolis this week.
Courtesy of Zero to Three LEARN

The first three years of childrens’ lives are shaped by a wide range of social factors. The Zero to Three LEARN conference held at the Minneapolis Convention this week tackled a number of those factors, including racial disparities in postpartum depression to climate change. 

Over the last two days, thousands of early childhood professionals gathered to discuss how to best serve children and families. And this year’s big themes are focused on the impact COVID-19 has had on different fields in early childhood care and learning.

Data collected by Zero to Three found that while the stressors of the pandemic affected babies negatively, the policies that arrived during the public health crisis were beneficial like the national child tax credit and federal support for child care centers. However, many of these policies have now expired.

Zero to Three Chief Policy Officer Miriam Calderon told conference attendees they’re already seeing detrimental impacts.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

“We now have evidence that children returned to poverty,” Calderon said. “We do a lot of work with families and try to lift their voices and put the stories of the impact of these policies behind this kind of data. And we have families, telling their stories to their members of Congress and talking about the lifeline of what the child tax credit did for them.”

Later this month, the organization will release a State of Babies 2023 Yearbook which will also include data on the impact of economic insecurity on families, trends in maternal and infant health and efforts to promote positive outcomes in infant and early childhood mental health.

In one conference session titled “Decolonizing Leadership in Infant Mental Health” Black leaders from child care and family centers from different parts of the country shared how they integrate racial justice into understanding infant and early childhood mental health.

One of the session's speakers, Eva Marie Shivers, founded a cultural center for families and young children of color in Arizona where she uses lessons from the Black Liberation Movement to better understand how to navigate Black families’ lived experiences.

“The biggest thing is holding the multiple truths of understanding how these oppressive systems that have been in existence for generations, both influence how we show up in the world, and how a lot of that injustice also lives inside of us,” Shivers said.

During the session, speakers shared the importance of understanding the impact intergenerational trauma has on families and how this trauma can affect children of color’s academic and social outcomes from an early age.

Presenters in another session about how to be culturally responsive during home-visits shared that even if little kids might not fully understand racial bias or other forms of discrimination, young children’s brains react to things like microaggressions in the same way they would a physical threat.

They said it’s important for providers who perform home-visits to be aware of implicit biases they may have when visiting families and to work on finding the strengths in the different cultural practices families have.

Zero to Three facilitates research and programs that highlight the importance of the first three years of a child's life and over the last few years executive director Matthew Melmed said there's been promising momentum nationally for early childhood policy.

Melmed said he’s seen how the pandemic has exacerbated a lot of issues that already existed in the system and hopes this conference inspires early childhood professionals to continue to advocate for themselves and families.

“There is a real severe workforce challenge,” he said. “In a system that, for years, has been not viable from a market-based solution is really struggling. You're starting to see that having impact on parents and then their babies and their toddlers, and even in terms of the economy in terms of the ability of working parents to go back to work.”

Melmed said Zero to Three is also working on resources that will help pediatricians and child care providers work together to identify developmental challenges and is working with local courts and community programs to transform the child welfare system.