SHERIDAN — The business leaders of today aren’t just smart, they enjoy learning. But that enjoyment of learning doesn’t begin at adulthood, it begins while a child’s mind is still forming. 

On Monday, Dr. Bob Sornson, president of the Early Learning Foundation, discussed different ways a community can help early childhood education develop and thrive. 

The program was put on free to the public by Whitney Benefits, and was held at the Whitney Center for the Arts at Sheridan College.

Nearly 50 people, primarily comprised of early childhood professionals and community organizers, attended the discussion. 

“We are committed to education in our community,” Whitney Benefits Board President Tom Kinnison said. “And this is an issue in our community.” 

Sornson classifies early childhood education as children attending school from preschool to third grade, which is a crucial time for education development.

At that age, he said, if students do not become good learners and enjoy learning, it will likely affect them for the rest of their lives. 

“We can’t have students who just get by,” Sornson said. “To truly benefit our kids we need high-quality preschool and early childhood education programs to get them on the right path for success in life.” 

Studies indicate that for every dollar spent on early childhood education, the community eventually gets $6 in return.

There are five essential elements for high-quality early childhood development, according to Sornson. On that list are strong families and good parenting, high-quality prekindergarten to grade three early childhood education, networks of support for parents and young mothers and economic stability for young families. 

Sornson challenged the traditional system of education in which a student is given a letter grade in a subject and moved on to the next grade level. He said students need to be met at their cognitive level, and that simply pushing students through the system is not an effective way to develop lifelong learners. 

He said due to the traditional education system, 64 percent of students are below reading level by the time they reach fourth grade. Those numbers jump up to 82 percent for students who live in poverty. 

“Every year gets a little bit harder and harder for those students,” Sornson said. “They then disengage, they stop learning and then they become one of those kids who get left behind.” 

A child’s learning ability begins at home. Not only do children need to be attended to, Sornson said the community needs to focus its efforts toward parents, as well. 

Households with higher instability — financially and socially — can lead to chronic stress, which then affect the brain development of students that will last a lifetime. Sornson suggests that helping those parents develop networks of support can assist in child development. 

Part of providing quality early childhood education is to employ high-quality educators. However, Sornson said, there are major roadblocks because salary schedules at preschools are often not competitive to retain those educators. 

Among the suggestions Sornson had was to set up an early childhood education forum for community members. He said that if the movers and shakers of the community can collaborate on ways early childhood education can be improved, Sheridan could be an example of a successful community. 

“This is a community that is ripe to do this and do it well,” Sornson said. “There are so many people here who are committed to improving the community.”