Using a Social Determinants of Early Learning Framework to Eliminate Educational Disparities

Celeste Yager-Kandle

Aug 9, 2021

In a recent publication from the Foundation for Child Development, Iheoma Iruka, PhD authored a chapter on the social determinants of early learning as a framework for eliminating educational disparities. In her writing, she discusses the entrenched nature of the achievement gap as “one of the greatest social problems in the US.”

The lack of opportunities for many children of color, known as the opportunity gap, may in turn lead to the achievement gap. Dr. Iruka describes the achievement gap in the US as being characterized by white children and children from higher income households performing better in certain subject areas such as reading, math, and science than Black, Hispanic, and Native American children, and children from low-income households. By kindergarten, many of these children are months, and sometimes years, behind children from white families and higher incomes. However, children who participate in high-quality early learning programs may still experience the achievement gap, meaning that early learning alone will not eliminate it. What’s more, is that despite an increase in early learning opportunities academic and social gaps by income and race/ethnicity persist.

Because of this, Dr. Iruka’s focus in this chapter is on the root causes, social policies, and other factors that perpetuate inequities and maintain disparities in early learning. She recommends that adapting the Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) framework to early learning will help to eliminate disparities and inequities. Healthy People 2030 defines SDoH as, “the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.” This includes economic stability, education access and quality, health care access and quality, neighborhood and built environment, and social and community context.

Before the age of five, a child’s brain is in a stage of complex neural, social, and emotional development, making one million new neural connections every second. Early childhood experiences shape brain architecture, meaning the earliest stages of development are a critical time to eliminate disparities.

Applying a Social Determinants of Early Learning (SDoEL) framework would examine the root causes that limit resources, supports, and impact outcomes for children in early education settings — especially for racially and economically marginalized students and families. In Dr. Iruka’s words, “the concept behind SDoEL is that socioeconomic and political contexts lead to individuals’ socioeconomic position, which then impacts their resources and living conditions, greatly reducing some children’s opportunities to thrive.” SDoEL would offer a “big-picture” approach to early childhood education, by examining how larger systems and public policies impact smaller systems (microsystems), such as classrooms and families.

“SDoEL is really relevant to what we do at Children’s Institute because there is such a strong focus on looking upstream at some of the earliest experiences, contexts, access to care, and support that kids and their families have,” explains Elena Rivera, CI’s senior health policy and program advisor. “We are focused on kids prenatal to age eight, systems transformation, and policy change because that’s where we need to focus our attention to really change the outcomes for kids, families, and communities.

Ultimately, this requires early childhood researchers to study early care and education through an equity lens that includes diverse perspectives. It also calls for a deeper understanding of how certain laws and policies create an opportunity gap, where certain groups of people are unable to access the resources to help them thrive. This includes a lack of access to high-quality early care and education, living in economically stable households and communities, and having enriching home and classroom learning environments.

Dr. Iruka’s research has been instrumental in training educators across the country on anti-bias education, including in Oregon. In June, CI’s Early School Success team hosted an Early Learning Academy. The event was keynoted by Dr. Iruka and Dr. Tonia Durden, co-authors of the book, Don’t Look Away: Embracing Anti-Bias Classrooms. The Academy used Dr. Iruka and Dr. Durden’s approach as a framework to support educational transitions for teachers, students, families, and school communities. During the presentation, they shared a wealth of information about the historical and systemic factors that have shaped how schools interact with racially and economically marginalized students and families and highlighted ways that educators can shift classroom and school culture so parents and students can fully engage, and every student can reach their potential.

Oregon’s emerging early learning system needs to play a role in addressing disparities early on in a child’s life, by getting upstream and working to actually address and eliminate the inequities we are seeing in early childhood settings. Adapting the SDoH framework to early learning is a way to address the factors that impact students’ outcomes and their well-being, in the long run.

Additional Resources

Getting it Right: Using Implementation Research to Improve Outcomes

Podcast: Foregrounding Racial Equity in Early Childhood

Dr. Walter Gilliam on Preschool Expulsion and Bias 

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