A new measure, under development, will give policymakers better data about children’s development, well-being, and learning

BlogEarly ChildhoodJul 28 2020

During times of crisis—such as the current COVID-19 pandemic and related recession—it is critical that state policymakers have high-quality data to help them understand children’s development and better support the creation of policies that mitigate potential injury to children and families. One important measure is the Healthy and Ready to Learn Measure (HRTL), which will provide leaders with information on the health and readiness to learn of young children in their states starting in 2022.

Policymakers and advocates have sought this type of annual, population-level measure for decades, and for good reason: It’s a game-changer. The measure will represent the first time the field will have comprehensive information, gathered consistently over time and across states, on whether preschool children are prepared to enter kindergarten healthy and ready to learn at the state level. HRTL makes it clear that children’s school readiness is a public health issue—similar to obesity, asthma, breastfeeding, and violence—situating it as an issue relevant to communities and not just individual parents.

From early analyses conducted during the HRTL measure’s validation phase, we know that supports for young children are strongly related to their preparedness for school. Many of these supports are uniquely vulnerable during a crisis. For example, children are more ready to learn when their families can afford to eat filling, nutritious meals and when their parents are physically and mentally healthy. When families are under economic strain or facing illness, such supports are vulnerable. Similarly, strong neighborhoods play a role in supporting families and helping children be ready to learn. When those communities are at risk due to natural or economic crises, young children face new challenges to their health and learning.

The HRTL measure is unique in its robustness. It paints a rich picture of children by looking across four domains: early learning skills, self-regulation, social-emotional development, and physical well-being and motor development. The ability to look beyond just health or education indicators will help leaders address the full range of supports that children and families need to thrive, including nutrition, access to health and mental health services, strong families with economic stability, and community resources. This is particularly valuable for understanding how children are faring when crises arise and their development may be under threat—and whether the policy responses designed to help are working.

Having annual data is key to the measure’s utility. State leaders, researchers, and advocates need consistently available, timely data before, during, and after a crisis to identify needs and understand whether policy responses are available and working as intended. The early childhood field will be able to look at these data across states and subgroups to see which constellation of child and family supports seems to be connected to health and school readiness. Having this information annually will allow it to be used to inform current decision making.

Deborah Stein is the Network Director for the Partnership for America’s Children.

HRTL was developed by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau (HRSA MCHB) in response to requests from state stakeholders. Together, HRSA MCHB and Child Trends have been refining and validating the measure, and are currently completing the validation process so that state-level data will be available to the field in 2022.