While we’ve all seen kids behaving badly, those of us in law enforcement witness the worst of it when teens and young adults become involved in the criminal justice system. Of course, we do what’s right to protect public safety, but I’ll be the first to tell you how difficult it is to see young men and women behind bars. 

Time and again, educational challenges and behavioral issues are linked to this outcome. That’s why I recently spoke in support of a legislative proposal – LD 997, An Act to Promote Social and Emotional Learning and Development for Young Children. Although I could have spent plenty of time discussing the links between not being able to “play well with others” and involvement in crime, I focused instead on the power of quality early learning to develop the behavioral skills that put kids on track for productive lives. 

Numerous studies have shown that students who participate in high-quality early care and education programs have better academic achievement, cognitive development, and grade retention. Studies also show quality early learning programs can contribute to positive social-emotional development, such as better self-control and fewer behavior problems.  

These early social-emotional skills are critical for later success, including avoiding involvement with the criminal justice system. In 2013 The American Journal of Public Health published the results of a 20-year study showing a link between children’s social skills in kindergarten and their well-being in early adulthood. 

For every one-point decrease in a child’s social competence score in kindergarten, he/she had: 

  • 64 percent higher chance of having spent time in juvenile detention;  
  • 67 percent higher chance of having been arrested by early adulthood;  
  • 52 percent higher rate of recent binge drinking and 82% higher rate of marijuana usage; and 
  • 82 percent higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing. 

Quality early learning programs can help build these important social-emotional skills and also significantly reduce the chances of a child growing up to become a criminal. 

A long-term study in Chicago, for example, shows that kids who did not participate in the Child-Parent Centers’ quality early learning programs were 70 percent more likely to have been arrested for a violent crime by the time they reached adulthood.  By age 20 the Child-Parent Center participants reported a 29 percent increase in high school graduation. Their peers left out of the programs were more likely to be held back in school, more likely to drop out, and less likely to graduate and more likely to commit crimes.     

It’s important to note that these outcomes depend on the quality of the program. One indication of that is teacher education and training – which is what this bill addresses. It aims to create a voluntary program at the Maine Department of Education to establish early childhood consultants for teachers in public preschools, Head Start programs and child care settings. These consultants will help teachers address challenging behaviors and promote the social-emotional growth of young children, and be available to work with parents to reinforce positive behaviors at home. 

This is smart legislation because it aims to address children’s challenging behaviors as early as possible. It’s also a smart way to address the alarming fact that Maine’s rate of expelling children from early learning programs is the second highest in the country per capita. It’s also 12 times higher than the expulsion rates in our K-12 system. 

This is a big problem because expelling a child doesn’t address or help correct the problems – it just shifts them to another setting. If the behaviors escalate, that child may well grow into a teen or young adult who ends up in the custody of law enforcement.  That puts another drain on them and their families, and our communities and our state. 

For these reasons and more, this voluntary program is a worthy investment for the sake of children today and public safety in the years to come.  

Michael Feld is the Bath Chief of Police. 

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