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Attendees at the 2018 NAWRB 5th Annual Conference, “Year of Women” at The Standard Club in Chicago, IL are still buzzing from the Keynote Address by Diana Mendley Rauner, Ph.D., First Lady of Illinois and President of the Ounce of Prevention Fund. Rauner’s address discussed empowering women, children and families to help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
She began by sharing what inspired her interest in volunteer work and her passion of addressing intergenerational poverty and child development. Rauner’s career started on Wall Street, but she also grew up in a family that regularly participated in volunteer work. Because of this, she sought out volunteer opportunities as a young professional. However, helping ex-offenders learn how to read was a pivotal moment in her life which shifted her career path. She was astounded that men her age were unable to read, the connection between educational opportunities, poverty and crime, and the serious educational inequities that occur in the United States.
After witnessing the education inequities in our country first-hand, she realized this was an issue she wanted to focus on long term. Today, Rauner serves as President of the Ounce, a trusted source for early childhood research and program models that focus on the physical, social and emotional development of children. They develop programs, conduct research, train educators and strongly advocate for early childhood education. Many of these early childhood programs have created national models of high-quality early childhood education, ensuring that more children have access to opportunities best suited for their future success.
Through her work at the Ounce, Rauner strongly emphasizes that education should start at birth, not just at age five, the year children in the United States typically begin kindergarten. A child’s brain development, education, world view and opportunities are largely influenced by the environment they grow up in, and, unfortunately, this is controlled by the adults in their lives. Human interaction is incredibly important for brain development, and the amount of interaction a child has affects their feelings of security.
Rauner notes that babies who are given attention when they cry from feelings of discomfort or dysregulation, such as hunger or being wet, are more likely to view the world as safe, know that people will help them when things go wrong, and feel like they have control in their lives. On the other hand, babies who are not comforted during these moments, or are made more dysregulated, are more likely to view the world as unsafe, not predictable and they will feel like they cannot do anything about it. Emotion, sparked by human interaction plays an important part in a child’s education. A favorite quote by Rauner is “emotion drives attention and attention drives learning,” and this is especially true for the intergenerational transfer of problems.
The Ounce addresses these issues head on with a variety of programs to encourage childhood intervention to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. They focus on parent/child interactions, opportunities to learn self-regulation, and development skills to help them succeed, among others.
Another focus of the Ounce is home visiting, which is designed to reach the most at risk families even before birth. Recently, the state of Illinois launched a coordinated, universal system to offer all newborns and their parents a home visit in order to provide them with information, resources, and supports to meet their needs, called Illinois Family Connects.
Additionally, the Ounce partners with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund to build Educare schools in communities across the country. Educare is a comprehensive program that serves children birth to age five and their families. It is built on the foundation of Head Start and dedicated to increasing the quality of early childhood education for vulnerable young children across the country.
Rauner concluded her speech by encouraging all of us to help advocate for quality early childhood education and supports for children living in poverty. According to their most recent poll from last year, 89 percent of voters support making early education more affordable, so there is opportunity for all of us to work together to make this a reality. “Everyone has potential, everyone can succeed,” she states. “There is no one that doesn’t deserve to succeed.” Our children not only deserve the opportunity to succeed, but it is also pivotal for the future of our country that they do: “We can’t afford to let half of our children become unsuccessful in school. That’s our future; they’re all our future.”