On a recent Monday morning, my 20 preschoolers returned to my classroom after having spent two days at home. At 4 years old, my students don't understand the concept of weekends or weekdays, but rather school days and home days. That is, if they have a consistent home.
Jeremy's family is currently living at a hotel while his single mother is securing more permanent housing. Jeremy is happy because he has clean pants; he told me as soon as he walked in that he is going to try his hardest to keep his pants clean today.
Why does a 4-year-old need to worry about keeping his pants clean? The reason is because he knows that his mother can't wash any clothes until one of the next stay-at-home days. He knows that they must go to the laundromat together then; that is when he will have clean clothes and so he is careful not to dirty up his pants. Jeremy is also very hungry today. Living in a hotel, he doesn't often have nutritious or satisfying meals. He often tells me how he shares his "snack pack," given each Friday to low-income students in need, with his siblings.
"Maslow's before Bloom's" is a familiar principle among educators. It references Maslow's hierarchy of needs and Bloom's taxonomy of knowledge. It means, simply, that if a child's basic needs like food or shelter aren't being met or if they don't feel safe, they can't learn. Arkansas ranks 43rd in the nation for child well-being. Students who are hungry, tired, homeless, working long hours, babysitting their siblings, or experiencing trauma aren't coming to school "ready to learn."
Even though for many of them school is a safe haven, their brains are in a constant survival state. Brains in a constant survival state aren't ready to learn just because the students walk through the schoolhouse doors. It is no coincidence that "failing schools" often have one common denominator: students living in poverty and who have experienced high levels of trauma.
As an educator, I believe our state needs to invest in wrap-around services and long-term solutions that improve the quality of life for children like Jeremy. Here are three ideas:
First, we need to invest in high-quality, structured after-school and summer programs that provide a safe space for children and youth at risk of undesirable outcomes, lessen food insecurity-related worries, support peer relationship building skills, and have been proven to increase academic support. This can be done through grants to programs that meet specific guidelines such as expanded learning, interventions for academic support, and meal services.
Second, we need to invest in Universal Pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds in our state, as well as provide more funding for birth-to-3 providers where there is a significant lack of access for families. While our early childhood programs and initiatives have consistently ranked among the top in the nation, state funding has been stagnant for more than a decade.
We have an important and necessary focus in Arkansas on getting all children reading on grade level by the end of third grade, and Pre-K has been proven to be a positive factor to achieving this goal. Let's make sure we have the funding to support this goal.
Third, we need to invest in easily accessible and effective mental and behavioral health programs and services. According to Arkansas Children's Hospital, there has been a 25 percent increase in children and youth seeking mental and behavioral health services since the beginning of 2020. We need to ensure access to these services for all children and youth in Arkansas.
All children deserve to come to school ready to learn. Sadly, that isn't a reality for students like Jeremy.
This is why we must invest in programs that support them in all areas of their lives so we can take care of Maslow and turn our full attention to Bloom.
Cara Maxwell is a Pre-K teacher in the Springdale School District and a Teach Plus Arkansas Policy Fellowship alumna.