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Itasca Project makes the business case for better early childhood care

HealthPartners CEO Andrea Walsh and other local execs say employers can play a big role in fostering better environments for young children.

The first 1,000 days of life can lead to a chain reaction of positive or negative experiences for the rest of a child’s life.
The first 1,000 days of life can lead to a chain reaction of positive or negative experiences for the rest of a child’s life.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

When members of the Itasca Project met 18 months ago to talk about priorities for the year ahead, they had no idea that a global pandemic would arrive and upend our daily routines. From working to parenting to shopping, COVID-19 has been one of the most significant disruptors in recent history.

But for HealthPartners President and CEO Andrea Walsh and other execs, one thing hasn’t changed: The importance of early childhood development. If anything, Walsh says, the pandemic has only underscored the important role that employers can play in creating a better environment for working parents.

“From our vantage point, COVID only accelerates the need to raise awareness now,” Walsh said.

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That’s why the Itasca Project — an employer-led volunteer group — has authored a new report highlighting the importance of brain development during a child’s first 1,000 days of life. Released last week, the report makes a business case for supporting employees as they raise children.

“Employers who implement family-friendly policies and practices can increase employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention, while decreasing absenteeism and healthcare costs,” the group said in the report.

The Itasca Project, which comprises more than 70 business and civic leaders in the Twin Cities, has been around for about two decades now. Since it formed, the group has been primarily focused on social issues from an employer’s perspective. The project has no physical headquarters or permanent staff, and each leader participates on a volunteer basis. In 2015, the group earned a nod from The New York Times for its work in the Twin Cities.

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Walsh is serving as co-chair of the group’s first 1,000 days task force. Her other co-chairs: U.S. Bancorp Vice Chair of Consumer and Business Banking Tim Welsh and U of M Medical School Dean Dr. Jakub Tolar. The task force also includes SPS Commerce CEO Archie Black, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove, and St. Catherine’s University President Becky Roloff, among more than a dozen other local leaders.

Andrea Walsh
Andrea Walsh
Walsh said the first 1,000 days of life can lead to a chain reaction of positive or negative experiences for the rest of a child’s life. Those first three years determine whether a child will become a “lifelong learner,” among other things. Those kinds of characteristics can determine a child’s quality of life, and perhaps even length of life, Walsh said. She noted that a high school diploma is the “single biggest factor” in determining a person’s life expectancy. The strategy behind the report, then, is to push employers to create better environments for newborns long before they set foot in school.

“The first 1,000 days is the time period when your brain is developing and the receptors for lifelong learning are getting set,” Walsh said. “If those connections get made … you’ll have a much better chance of becoming a lifelong learner.”

So what kinds of things make for a successful first 1,000 days? Walsh said breastfeeding can be one important element. Strong mental health support services for new moms can also make a difference. But even simple activities like talking, singing, and playing with a child can make a big difference, according to the report.

She relayed an anecdote about a hair salon worker who spent a lot of time singing and talking with her child; that turned out to play an important role in the child’s development, Walsh said.

“You don’t have to be an exceptional reader, and you don’t have to have an advanced degree to be an exceptional parent,” she said.

Later this year, the Itasca Project aims to release a “toolkit” that will help employers craft better policies for new parents. Though the group hasn’t yet shared more details on that toolkit, Walsh noted that there’s a pilot version that’s been in the works over the last few months. She acknowledged that some companies do have more resources than others, but she emphasized that the toolkit will provide concrete suggestions for employers large and small.

Marshall-based food company Schwan’s Co. is among the employers that have already taken the report to heart. Scott Peterson, chief human resources officer at Schwan’s, said he first heard about the report at a presentation at the University of St. Thomas a couple summers ago. He said he was “blown away” by the Itasca Project’s preliminary findings at the time.

“The die is somewhat cast in the first few years of life,” said Peterson, who also sits on the task force for the first 1,000 days report. “For me, I’ve got kids and grandkids. You can’t help but think about them and personalize it. I pretty quickly jumped on the task force.”

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As a result, his company began looking into possible vendors that could help raise awareness among employees. They eventually landed on Cleo, an online platform designed to equip new and prospective parents with key child-rearing skills. Schwan’s began offering Cleo to employees on Feb. 1, Peterson said. The company has also extended paid maternity leave.

It remains to be seen how other companies will respond to the group’s report. But Walsh is hopeful more will follow Schwan’s lead. She also noted that the Itasca Project has a working group dedicated to measuring the success and impact of the report.

“We need employers to be part of the ‘village’ that helps ensure that our kids are healthy in the future,” Walsh said. “Time is of the essence. … Every day that we wait to get this report and this information out is a day that another child born is in the state of Minnesota who could be impacted by the very recommendations in this report.”