For Babies, a Smile is More than Just a Smile. It’s Progress.

Nothing melts a heart faster than a baby’s smile. But as rewarding as that smile is to you, it’s also a critical moment in that baby’s healthy development. 

“During the early years, young children are learning about relationships, creating bonds with their caregivers, and acquiring the skills necessary to interact with their peers, as well as developing their sense of self,” says Nikki Nash MacIsaac, Program Director at Gregg House in Lynn.  “They are also learning to control their bodies while participating in the routines of their day, how to delay gratification, and to develop and nurture positive peer relationships.”

The first few years of a child’s development, however, can be as fragile as they are forceful.  While positive early experiences build a foundation for a lifetime of learning and achievement, the stresses of poverty during these critical years do tremendous harm.  

Early experiences with trauma can manifest later on in a child’s day-to-day behavior, affecting his or her healthy development.  These behavioral problems can impede the child’s capacity to learn. And children whose parents are unable to engage in their development can lag as much as 6 months behind in vocabulary development by age 2.

“These children are among our most vulnerable,” says Karley Ausiello, Senior Vice President for Community Impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “Social-emotional development is how we learn to think about ourselves, how we behave with other people, and how we learn to be independent.  Social and emotional skills are vital for children to learn how to interact positively with both adults and with other children. These skills are important in school and lay a valuable foundation for a child’s success in life.”

When children experience adversity in their early years, its impact is long-lasting.  

Nearly one-third of the 215,000 babies and toddlers in Massachusetts live in poverty or are in households considered low-income, according to the 2019 State of Babies Yearbook.  In New Hampshire, nearly 27 percent of the state’s 38,100 infants and toddlers are at an economic disadvantage.  

“Families who can’t afford childcare are often missed by providers, and when children get to kindergarten, they are already behind compared to peers who have attended preschool or other programs,” says Marolí Licardié, Executive Director at Family and Children’s Service in Lynn.

Gregg House in Lynn works with many children who have experience in foster care, and some families with multiple generations of foster care involvement. “For many of the children we work with, the circumstances of their lives make this a challenge,” MacIsaac says. “Many of these families also struggle financially.  Given these challenges as well as many others including, but not limited to, the opioid crisis, mental health issues, a lack of adequate and affordable housing, and language barriers, make our job even more important.”

Homelessness and housing instability during the crucial early years of development have a negative impact on children’s health and well-being.  According to a May 2019 analysis of homeless infants in Massachusetts, developmental delays were diagnosed at a rate twice as high during the first year of life.

“We are realizing that children 0-5 who are homeless are often not assessed in traditional educational centers soon enough to support their healthy development,” says Larry Seamans, President at FamilyAid Boston, an organization that supports families experiencing homelessness.  “We have an obligation to the children in our care to support the parents in assessing what their children need and lining up the appropriate resources – from the earliest days – because it is likely they will be living in shelter for a year or more. We cannot wait for other systems to assess them.”

According to the 2019 State of Babies Yearbook, fewer than half (46.3%) of young children in Massachusetts are screened for developmental delays.

Seamans says FamilyAid Boston’s focus on data and research around best practices to support families shaped the organization’s new partnership with United Way’s innovative early childhood screening initiative, DRIVE.  “We want our embrace of early childhood developmental screening to change the face of the social work we are doing in our shelters,” Seamans says.

In 2014, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley launched DRIVE, a universal developmental screening program that aims to help parents, caregivers and early childhood programs the data needed to engage families in supporting their children’s learning and development and improve program quality.  

DRIVE aims for universal early childhood developmental screening.  Children under five are screened at regular intervals across the community: in center-based and licensed family child care sites, through family support and home visiting programs, using the efforts of Parent Screeners in the community who are trained to provide culturally competent screening and follow-up to other parents.  

The program empowers all caregivers to make informed, strategic decisions to tailor supports and resources to children and ensure they enter school ready to learn.

“Through the DRIVE initiative, families receive free developmental screening and referral services,” Licardié said.  “At Family and Children’s Service, we have screened over 100 children and provided referrals to Head Start programs, parent-child playgroups, and early intervention. An important aspect of the screening is to identify early social-emotional behaviors where parents may need support to focus on positive behaviors. Being able to identify young children in need of services helps them improve at an early age and be more prepared for school.”

“We strive to support the family as a whole and enable parents to be the best caregivers they can be, which means we put a great deal of effort and energy into sharing our knowledge of child development and ways to support children as they learn the skills that they will need for success later in life,” says MacIsaac at Gregg House.

 Lisa Deschenes, Director of Education and Children’s Services at Beverly Children’s Learning Center, Inc., says the families they serve are often engaged in work or education activities during the day, and many also lack transportation. “This presents complications to families seeking social-emotional services for their preschool age children, which can be daunting and can in turn create additional stressors for both child and family,” she says.  “Partnering with the United Way’s DRIVE program has allowed us to initially gather important developmental information and demographic data on the family as a whole that assists our educators in getting to know a newly enrolled child.”

DRIVE is supported by United Way’s Private Equity and Venture Capital Industry leaders, along with the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, companies such as Applied Materials, and foundations such as the Gisela B. Hogan Foundation and the Center for the Study of Social Policy

To date: DRIVE has:

  • Collected developmental screening data from more than 6,200 children ages 0-5. Among children re-screened after one year, more than 65% progressed from showing strong need for concern to potential need for concern or developing on track.
  • Trained and supported 35 parent screeners and partnered with 25 early education and community-based programs across 60 sites in Greater Boston to build the infrastructure for collecting screening data.
  • Expanded to communities outside of Boston, including Chelsea, Gloucester, Lawrence, Lynn, Somerville, and Springfield.  
  • Informed statewide efforts to improve data collection and infrastructure for screening young children. 

Though this work has been successful with forty current DRIVE partners, there are many more children in Massachusetts who would benefit from access to DRIVE resources were the program to expand to more programs in more communities with higher need.

In New Hampshire, United Way leads Somersworth Ready Together, which is working to engage all the families of the 832 Somersworth children between the ages of zero and five and help ensure they are prepared to succeed in school and beyond.

“With a large portion of our children not accessing early learning programs or other family support programs like home visiting before entering kindergarten, it is imperative that we learn directly from families about their needs and how the Somersworth Ready Together (SRT) Coalition and its members can work to meet those needs,” says Liz Belsito, United Way’s SRT Coordinator.

This year, the SRT Coalition is also convening a variety of community partners — the school district, Somersworth Police Department, state foster care officials —  to develop strategies to reach and provide support to children who have experienced adversity in their environments.

“When parents, caregivers, providers and the community understand a child’s developmental progress, they can prevent issues before they grow too large to treat,” says United Way’s Ausiello. “That understanding provides opportunities for educational intervention in the critical “brain-building” phase of a child’s life when services are more effective and less costly.”