Education

Providing parents tools to develop their babies’ brains

Parents in the Thirty Million Words Initiative learn the importance of talking to their babies from birth. Photo credit: TMW.

All too often the condition of some children — and their future role in society — is determined long before their first day of kindergarten.

By the time poor children are 3 years old, researchers believe they have heard on average about 30 million fewer words than children the same age from better-off families, setting back their vocabulary, cognitive development and future reading skills before the first day of school.

I firmly believe that all parents want their children to have a strong start in life, but some don’t have the knowledge or skills to provide a solid foundation for their little ones to have a successful future in school.

Through programs that assist parents in high-poverty areas in developing the tools and skills to help stimulate their babies’ brains, we believe we can help more children in Pensacola reach developmental milestones and be ready for school and beyond.

Last month, I made a presentation to the Pensacola Area Housing Commission directors and managers of eight housing campuses to outline SCI’s strategies and goals. I garnered support and participation from each of the managers who offered training space and granted access to meet with all of the parents who want to participate in parent outreach.

The Housing Commission already works with social service providers to assist its tenants in developing necessary coping and problem-solving skills for daily living. Our partnership will go a long way in helping to meet that goal.

Of the Area Housing Commission’s 1 ,000 residents, nearly 300 are children between birth and 3 years old. In SCI’s mission of improving the quality of life in the Pensacola Metro, helping more children get ready for kindergarten is a critical part of it.

In Escambia County every year more than 1,000 children who start kindergarten already are behind. This can lead to higher crime, more teenage pregnancies, lower wages and loss of jobs. We have to find ways to change this, and we can. Every child is our child.

Reaching children in their earliest years can help ensure that they get the healthy and strong start they need to begin school ready to learn and grow. Offering parent outreach programs at the Area Housing Commission complexes is a great place to start.

The programs will work directly with parents to engage them in day-to-day activities. The goal is to offer a safe and healthy developmentally appropriate program for parents and children from ages 0 to 3 to enhance their learning, growth and development. We aim to provide experience and training for parents to extend the learning environment from home to school and improve the quality of life for parents and their children.

The programs are designed to build on what parents already know and do: talk with their children. During weekly sessions, parents will learn about brain development and the power of their language to enrich their child’s development.

Through workshop sessions, role-playing and videos of real parent-child interaction, parents will learn easy-to-follow strategies to enhance interaction and improve social and emotional development of the child.

We also will provide tools for parents to enhance their home language environment in order to improve their child’s brain development, and invariably his or her ability to learn.

Studies consistently show that children who don’t get enough verbal communication and positive interaction with parents are put at a disadvantage before they ever step in a classroom.

Research also indicates that both quantity and quality of language are essential for vocabulary development, which is an indicator of third-grade reading proficiency. Children who can’t read to learn by the end of third grade are four times likely to drop out of high school.

Dr. Dana Suskind, founder and director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative, learned of this thirty million-word gap in the course of her work as a cochlear implant surgeon at the University of Chicago Medical School.

Bolstered by the knowledge that each parent holds the key to their child’s optimum brain development — and most don’t even know it — Suskind began a new research program to find the best ways to bridge that gap.

In her ground-breaking book, “THIRTY MILLION WORDS: Building a Child’s Brain,” Suskind shows clearly how parents can put into practice the core strategies of the Thirty Million Words Initiative — which can be codified by the three T’s:

– TUNE IN to what your child is doing

– TALK MORE to your child using lots of descriptive words

—TAKE TURNS with your child as you engage in conversation.

Most parents have the ability to talk, interact and engage with their children in daily encounters and activities. This simple but crucial task is at the heart of Thirty Million Words strategies. We plan to use and build on those key principles in our parent programs in Pensacola.

There is little debate over the fact that all children deserve the chance to reach their fullest potential. While traditional thought has said this begins on the first day of school, science tells us something different.

It says that if we want our children to be all they can be, intellectually, productively, creatively, we must begin to recognize that the ultimate achievement begins on the first day of life and that parents must be recognized as the critical link.

The gulf between the poor children and wealthier ones widens each year, and by high school it has become an ocean. It’s been a losing battle to close this gap in schools, and a consensus has emerged to do something long before school — even before preschool, perhaps even before birth.

Just as a child needs a certain amount of healthy food for physical growth, that same child also needs a healthy dose of language for brain development.

By reaching and teaching children early in their young lives through parent engagement, we can give them the help and hope they need as we strive to build a brain, build a life and build a community.

If you want to help or know someone who has ideas, suggestions or just want to talk about SCI’s labor of love in early learning, email rdogan@studeri.org, or call (850) 529-6485.