Rick Davis: The early education-opiate addiction link

Editor's note: This commentary is by Rick Davis, president/co-founder of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children

Thanks to extensive media coverage, the entire nation knows that Gov. Shumlin dedicated his State of the State address to Vermont’s opiate problem. Those who were listening closely may have also noticed he mentioned the need for quality early education as part of our prevention measures. How does early education weigh into Vermont’s opiate addiction problem?

Addiction is a developmental disease

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) tells us that addiction is a developmental disease. These behaviors can start in the childhood and adolescence years. But the early years also provide opportunities for intervention. A quick glance at the research on addiction risk and protective factors available through NIDA and the Centers for Disease Control reads like an extended testimonial for quality early childhood care and education. Through quality programs, we can help our children develop resiliency and the social emotional skills that will arm them to deal with these issues and pressures as they get older.

What does quality early education look like?

When we talk about quality child care or pre-K programs, we envision safe, nurturing environments with professionals who serve as resources for parents. These professionals have training in child development and understand the importance of serve-and-return interactions. They may spot developmental concerns well before a child reaches school age, connecting families to early intervention services. They provide age-appropriate, engaging activities for children who learn and develop important social, emotional and cognitive skills as they play. These providers offer healthy snacks and meals to nourish the children’s growing minds and bodies. They develop a daily routine or structure that is reassuring to the children. They provide equipment and space for active, physical play and quiet space for napping and recharging.

Learning begins at birth

The brain is the only organ that is not fully formed at birth. During the first five years in a child’s life 90 percent of brain development occurs. During this time, the brain forms an extensive network of wiring, making important neural connections. This foundation can be weak or strong depending on the quality of the relationships and interactions in a child’s life and the environment she spends her time in.

When children are in quality child care and early education environments, they are more likely to come to kindergarten ready to learn.


Clearly, parents have the most important role in a child’s life. Yet sadly, some Vermont children spend time in environments that expose them to drug use and other stressors. And when both parents are in the workforce, young children may spend as much as 40 hours per week in child care. It’s important these environments be high quality.

When children are in quality child care and early education environments, they are more likely to come to kindergarten ready to learn. They are less likely to become teenage parents, get involved with drugs or burden our correctional system. They are more likely to stay in school, graduate from college and become part of a strong workforce.

There is a long way to go before every Vermont child has a safe, stimulating and nurturing early childhood environment -- but there are some bright spots:

  • H.270, a bill to expand access to pre-kindergarten education
  • Federal Race-to-the-Top grant to build capacity in Vermont's early childhood system
  • Additional funding for childcare in the new Pathways out of Poverty
  • Early childhood action planning, following a statewide summit
  • STARS (STep Ahead Recognition System), a childcare provider quality rating system

Invest early to yield positive long-term results

Gov. Shumlin recognizes that Vermont’s opiate problem needs to be fought on many fronts. However, starting with our very youngest is one of the best preventive measures we have. It is not a matter of if we can afford to make these early investments. We simply cannot afford not to re-prioritize our existing funding for health care, education and human services to focus more on the early years.


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