Closing disparities in early learning opportunities gives all kids a foundation for success

Kindergarten readiness provides lifelong benefits, but COVID-19 exacerbated long-standing gaps in preschool engagement for the disadvantaged

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(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – Preparing toddlers and young kids with the skills and education they need to be kindergarten-ready gives them a proven foundation for success. Data shows that kids who demonstrate the skills to be successful in kindergarten are more likely to go on to have better grades, graduate high school and even have fewer behavioral problems. However, not all kids have the same opportunities to engage in preschool and early education programs. It’s a long-standing problem that was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, when participation in preschool plummeted among families living in poverty.

“We know that black and brown children tend not to test as well in kindergarten readiness assessments as their white peers. And the pandemic just really brought that into further light,” said Mary Kay Irwin, senior director of school health for Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “We have to focus on affected neighborhoods to figure out what we can do to create an equitable experience for children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.”

Talking to your pediatrician is a good place for parents to start. They can suggest simple educational activities to implement in everyday life, like reading together before bedtime or counting the blueberries on your plate at lunchtime.

“At every office visit with my families, we talk about what they can do at home with their kids in their free time together as a family to build their educational, social and emotional skills in those critical early years,” said Sara Bode, MD, a pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “When they are thinking about those at home, they become habits and help kids continue to build on their skills and get to the next developmental level.”

Pediatricians are also plugged into the programs and resources in your community and can help connect you with the support you need. 

 “In addition to your pediatrician, your local library is an invaluable resource that is often forgotten,” Irwin said. “They are always offering programming that is really directed at literacy and numeracy, and librarians are also knowledgeable about where to find the best free programs.”

At Nationwide Children’s, this includes the SPARK program, which targets underserved communities and increases kindergarten readiness scores for 95% of participants. Kindergarten readiness is so important that experts at Nationwide Chidlren’s have named it one of eight pediatric vital signs that were developed to measure and improve a child’s overall wellbeing, including things like regular health screenings, vaccinations and suicide prevention. The hope is that preschool programs will quickly expand with the adoption of the Biden administration’s American Families Plan, which proposes free, high-quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.


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Carlean Denby practices number recognition with her 5-year-old daughter, Luzia. Simple habits like reading and counting together at home help young kids gain the skills they need to be kindergarten-ready, which sets a foundation for success later in life.

Pediatrician Sara Bode, MD, discusses age-appropriate books that she offers to her patients at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Bode addresses developmental and educational milestones with families of toddlers and young children at every visit to ensure kids are gaining the skills they need to be kindergarten-ready.

Mary Kay Irwin speaks with a nurse inside one of Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s mobile care centers. As the director of school health, Irwin says it’s important to bring health care directly into underserved communities and it’s equally important to provide educational programs to help every child gain the skills they need to be successful in kindergarten and beyond.

Five-year-old Luzia is ready for kindergarten thanks to the SPARK program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. The program targets underserved communities and improves kindergarten readiness scores in 95% of participants.

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