My testimony to the Members of the House Education Committee re: HB 1004, expanding early preK

Chairman Behning, and Members of the House Education Committee,

My name is Dr. Tony GiaQuinta. I am a pediatrician for Hendricks Regional Hospital, and the vice-president of the Indiana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, representing over 800 Hoosier pediatricians. I am very proud of these credentials, but my favorite credential, by far, is father to two beautiful children, Margaret age two, and her four-year-old brother, Henry.

I am here today on behalf of Indiana’s pediatricians because we believe that success starts early, and therefore endorse an expansion of Indiana’s high-quality, pre-K commitment.

Our organization’s support is limited to funding pre-K. We are not here to either endorse, nor criticize, the school choice issue, which as been attached to this bill, as those are two separate issues. We would prefer pre-K be allowed to stand on its own sot that all sides can get behind this important movement.

You may be wondering why Indiana’s pediatricians would endorse an education bill.

Well, to begin, I’d like to share something neat my 4 year old did yesterday.

I was grocery shopping with my kids, and had somehow (some might say, miraculously), checked off everything on my wife Sarah’s grocery list. I had made it to the finish line, including the gauntlet of gum and candy at the register, when Henry asks the cashier for a sticker. She smiled, and gave Henry two. Well, Margaret saw that and just about flipped her lid. But then, something amazing happened: He put one sticker on his shirt, and took the other, and held it out to Margaret, to….share?

Wait. Is he sharing? Oh sweet Moses. This was it. Time slowed down as he held it out to her. A chorus of ‘alleluia’ started playing in my head. Never again would they fight, bicker, or taunt!

Well, it was a nice moment, but instead of handing it to her, he planted it square on her face. ‘A’ for effort… the execution needs some tinkering.  Thankfully, that was good enough for Margaret (and good enough for me, too) .

Why was this moment so significant, you might ask? Sure, as a dad, wanting your child to be a kind and sharing is something any parent strives for.

But as a pediatrician, I know that watching Henry offer that sticker for his sister, instead of himself, is a sign of a healthy brain developing and maturing.

The truth is, Indiana’s pediatricians know that house bill 1004 is so much more than an education bill. It is a bill that can protect and nurture Indiana’s most vulnerable brains.

You see, brain plasticity, or the ability of the brain to rewire itself in response to changes in the environment, declines with age. In fact, by age five, the vast majority of a child’s brain capacity is already developed. This creates a real, ‘make it or break’ timeframe when areas of the brain supporting memory and learning, can inextricably connect to the areas supporting social, emotional, and language development. If these connections are not formed by Kindergarten, they likely never will.

Conversely, when the environment fosters interactions that are sensitive and responsive to the child’s needs, neuronal connections are formed and reinforced that help the brain mature, and allow the child to succeed.  

Unfortunately, there is a large population of Hoosier children that are at grave risk of missing this important opportunity forever.  Specifically, this applies to 27,000 low-income four-year old Hoosier children that are at increased risk of suffering from toxic stress.  Toxic stress is the physiologic maladaptation of the brain and body to poverty and violence. Young brains exposed to toxic stress are unable to form the healthy connections between important brain structures. This disrupted brain architecture has significant adverse effects on physical and social emotional health across the lifespan.

High quality Pre K, however, rescues children from toxic stress by providing a secure, nurturing environment, strengthening healthy neural connections and setting a strong foundation for learning and adult success.

It is without surprise, therefore, that high quality preschool is associated with greater academic success, higher high school graduation rates, increased years of education completed, higher earnings, reduced juvenile crime, decreased adolescent pregnancy rates, decreased need for future special education services, and in sum a significant rate of return on investment.

Henry is lucky. He is in a high quality pre-K program, and the only stress he faces is getting his shoes on the right feet. Every day comes home from school with a full belly, and a brain further exposed to positive, stable, and nurturing influences that reinforce integral connections in his brain. He has every opportunity to succeed.

For 27,000 low-income four-year olds Hoosier Children, their toxic stresses and adverse experiences may see the window of their brain’s development, and window of opportunity for success, closed forever.  

Indiana’s pediatricians recognize that we are critical partners in this effort to keep children on the right track, and that partnership includes calling on our state leaders to recognize the importance of pre-K and sufficiently fund it to increase access. On behalf of Indiana’s pediatricians, we hope that HB 1006 is the feel good, everyone wins success story of this legislative session. By investing in high-quality pre-K and fulfilling a young child’s developmental needs, the long term benefits are realized not only by the child, but their children, their community, and our commonwealth.

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