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Five Tips for Reporting on Infants and Toddlers

An award-winning journalist explains how, and why, to cover early childhood education.

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If you think about education reporting as covering schools and the students who attend them, you might be scratching your head as to why infants and toddlers are newsworthy subjects. But if education reporting is really about covering learning, then children under age 4 are some of the best subjects you could imagine.

I found that out firsthand last year when I worked with journalist Sarah Carr, her team of reporters from the Teacher Project, and the good folks at Slate Magazine to produce a series of nine stories and an insanely adorable video about 2-year-olds.

Here’s how I summarized the major leaps that happen the year a child is 2 in my piece about their cognitive development:

“In their 12 months of being 2 years old, most kids graduate from using a few disconnected words to speaking in nearly complete sentences. They also learn to jump, to understand that they may know things others don’t, and to use a toilet. And while the exact timelines for these developments vary for each child, the trajectory of the third full year of life bends sharply toward independence.”

The speed of learning during each year that brings a child from his first cry to his first day of preschool is similarly rapid. And yet, U.S. families typically get very little government support for the care and development of these littlest learners.

Nearly two-thirds of 2-year-olds have working mothers, usually a sign that families are looking for outside care. Meanwhile, the federal government provides enough funding to help about 6 percent of 2-year-olds. Roughly the same percentages apply to infants and 1-year-olds. Three-year-olds have better access to public programs, but not by much.

Here’s how I summarized it in my big picture story explaining why we thought covering this age group was necessary:

“Currently, funding to help the poor afford care is insufficient and funding to help the middle class is all but nonexistent. Just 0.3 percent of our gross domestic product is spent on public early childhood education and care for children age 5 and younger, compared with an average of 0.7 percent for the European Union, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which tracks international economic trends. We also spend about half as much per child as the average for EU countries. And most of that money goes to 4- and 5-year-olds in public preschool and kindergarten, not to younger children.”

Convinced that the early years deserve more attention from education reporters? Then read on for five tips on how to best cover this age group. I’ve included my own thoughts and pulled from the ideas shared by Sarah Carr and Zoe Kirsch during our panel discussion about covering this age group at EWA’s 2018 National Seminar in Los Angeles.

  1. It is very hard to actually find infants and toddlers.

Informal care for infants and toddlers is very common and very poorly regulated. Center-based care is less common, though typically better regulated. You can see this two ways: Families should be able to do their own thing with their own kids and the government shouldn’t interfere with them until they are at least school age. Or, the government does very little to educate and care for our country’s youngest children at one of the most critical periods of their lives.

Regardless, finding where and how infants and toddlers are spending their time is going to take some work. Try your local Child Care Resource and Referral Agency, YMCA, local churches and public library read-alouds to get started.

Takeaway: Prepare to put some shoe leather into this story.

  1. Education and care at this age are so intertwined as to be the same thing.

Trying to write about what kids are learning or are supposed to be learning at these ages is difficult because it’s all about learning the basic skills that contribute to being human: talking, problem solving, using opposable thumbs, to name a few. You absolutely have to talk about brain science to explain this stuff.

Also, if you’re new to this age group or planning to report on disabilities or delayed development of any kind, talk with an expert before you visit with the kids so you know what to expect.

Takeaway: Find yourself a reliably well-spoken cognitive science researcher.

  1. Infants and toddlers don’t say much, so be patient and keep your eyes peeled.

Children under the age of four are just learning to use language, let alone answer questions posed to them by a stranger. Make sure you plan enough time on your visit to just sit and watch the kids you’re covering so that you can describe their behavior well enough to bring them to life on the page (or over the airwaves).

Takeaway: Plan at least a half-day for a visit with kids this age.

  1. Little kids really love their caregivers.

There’s actually an entire literature built around the way kids this age feel about the adults who care for them. The relationship is called “attachment” and the strength of it predicts everything from how willing children are to explore their surroundings to how well they are able to perform in school many years later. Make sure caregivers are nearby to get the most reliable idea of what these kids are like. You might even consider having a parent, teacher or nanny ask your questions for you. Chances are good you’ll get better answers.

Takeaway: Make friends with the caregivers; they are the gatekeepers.

  1. Don’t blindly accept the status quo.

Of course, the job of a journalist is to question the status quo, but that advice applies more than usual for covering this age group. There is a massive gap between the number of infants and toddlers in need of high-quality care outside of the home and the number who are receiving it.

And the United States is way behind other countries in addressing this problem. Many other countries with modern economies, like France, are working hard on this problem while policymakers in the U.S. are still figuring out if it’s worth our while to provide free school for 4-year-olds.

Takeaway: Do not ignore international comparisons, even if your geographical focus in the United States is narrow.

I hope this list helps you get started in reporting on the care and education of young children. Please feel free to email me any time for more tips and tricks: Lillian AT And good luck!

Lillian Mongeau writes for The Hechinger Report, a national nonprofit news source covering inequality and innovation in education. You can follow her on Twitter at @lrmongeau.