The 5 Protective Factors: Why the First Five Years Matter

“In the developed world, the United States is an outlier in its low levels of financial support for young children’s care. The U.S. spends 0.2 percent of its G.D.P. on child care for children 2 and under — which amounts to about $200 a year for most families,” the New York Times highlighted in this article. “Other wealthy countries spend an average of 0.7 percent of G.D.P. Denmark, for example, spends $23,140 annually per child on care for children 2 and under.”

“‘We as a society, with public funding, spend so much less on children before kindergarten than once they reach kindergarten,’ said Elizabeth Davis, an economist studying child care at the University of Minnesota. ‘And yet the science of child development shows how very important investment in the youngest ages are, and we get societal benefits from those investments.’”

Investments in early childhood return, on average, seven times in future savings on social services. That means that for every dollar we spend supporting children and their parents in the first five years of their life, our community saves seven dollars in costs in the future. The return on investment is undeniable, and First 5 San Mateo County is strategic about how we invest to ensure that our community has what it needs to thrive.

Japanese older brother embraces his younger sister, while their mother joins in on the sofa.

The five protective factors are a framework used in child development and family support to enhance family strengths, optimize child development, and reduce the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. These factors are considered essential for fostering healthy and resilient families.outline the kinds of support that are foundational, the work that sees this kind of groundbreaking return. Together, these protective factors create a supportive and nurturing environment that promotes the well-being and resilience of both children and their families. These are the things that make a childhood successful, that help a child thrive as they develop and grow into healthy, happy adults. 

Our work at First 5 San Mateo County is a critical ingredient as our county looks toward the future. So much of our community in this county is dedicated to doing what has never been done before. Investing in early childhood through the lens of prevention is one of San Mateo County’s most promising and reliable innovations. First 5 San Mateo County’s role is to facilitate that, offering children and parents what they need today so that they can thrive in the future. Each of the five protective factors are embedded in our work. Here’s how:

A black couple walking on the beach with their baby.

Parental Resilience:

Parents are their children’s rock. When parents have the resilience and support they need, they are able to manage the stress and adversity that comes with the territory, and provide a stable emotional environment for their children. Children rely on their parents for emotional support and guidance, and resilient parents are better equipped to navigate challenges without becoming overwhelmed, which fosters a sense of security and stability for their children in their first five years.

This is why First 5 San Mateo County invests in parental education and support resources from the very beginning of a child’s life. Family learning is such an important way to impart confidence and capacity to parents who face systemic barriers, such as financial instability, language barriers, or even domestic violence.

Social Connections:

Being part of a community from the beginning helps children succeed for life. Social connections, particularly with family, childcare providers, and other children provide children with a sense of security, trust, and emotional support, which lays the foundation for healthy social and emotional development.

The people that babies spend the most time with are foundational to their language and communication skills from an early age. Important social skills like taking turns, sharing, empathy, and cooperation, can only be developed through practice! Through their social connections with peers and adults, children learn to express their feelings and understand new things!

Through participating in First 5 San Mateo County’s family support programs or quality early care and education, parents can build their networks, and children can grow into their roles as community members. These are critical years for developing these skills, and having resources in place for children and families that are available to them from birth ensures that these children succeed when it comes time for Kindergarten. 

Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development:

Parenting can be challenging, and there is not a rule book. It can be helpful to understand how a child’s brain is developing, and what kinds of support are most effective, when parents are making decisions about their child’s education, health, discipline, and enrichment. 

Recognizing developmental milestones and potential developmental delays early on allows parents and caregivers to seek timely intervention and support services if needed. Early intervention can mitigate the impact of developmental delays and provide children with the resources they need to thrive. First 5 San Mateo County works with Help Me Grow San Mateo County to provide free screenings for every child in the county, and developmental support and system navigation for the children and families that need it. 

Responsive caregiving, when parents are attentive and adaptive to their child’s needs in the moment, fosters emotional regulation, and supports healthy development. Knowing how to do this, what to look out for, and what strategies to deploy in the moment takes practice! Our family support partners are there to help parents develop these skills in community. 

Social and Emotional Competence of Children:

Positive parenting practices, such as consistency, warmth, and communication create a supportive and nurturing environment that enhances children’s mental, social, and emotional development. As they grow up, children can learn resilience directly from their parents through interactions and experiences. When children observe their parents coping effectively with difficulties, they learn valuable skills for managing their own challenges, big and small. 

Social and emotional competence equips children with the skills to resolve conflicts and solve problems collaboratively. By learning to negotiate, compromise, and seek win-win solutions, children develop essential skills for navigating social challenges and building positive relationships. Emotional skills allow children to manage their feelings effectively! When they learn to identify, express, and cope with a range of emotions, children can navigate social situations, handle stress, and maintain a sense of emotional balance.

What’s more, children are more likely to succeed in school if they know how to make friends and manage social relationships by the time they get to kindergarten!

Concrete Support in Times of Need:

When it comes to protecting children, making sure that there are real, meaningful services to turn to that help repair in challenging times is important. Even with all the resilience, emotional strength, and knowledge in the world, sometimes, we simply need resources. 

First 5 San Mateo County is investing in meaningful interventions, long term development support, and tangible resources for families as well. Ensuring that families have access to their basic needs, like food, shelter, and health resources is an important piece of the puzzle. 

The first five years set the stage for the rest of a child’s life. Investments in these five protective factors ensures that every parent has a reliable foundation for raising their children, rearing the next generation of San Mateo County citizens. These investments pay off, and it is important that children have the kind of well-rounded, complete support they need to realize their full potential. 

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