Education

Building babies’ brains through words

One of most important things a parent can give to a new baby is the gift of words.

Words are food to a baby’s brain. The more words a child hears in the first three years of life, the stronger the connections in the brain will be.

It’s never too early to start talking and reading to a baby as research shows that you can have a positive impact on your child’s language and cognitive development in the first year.

While it may seem too early to talk and read to baby, it is actually in these first months that early communication skills are developing.

The more connections you help your baby’s brain build by talking will influence how ready and able to learn he or she will be later in life.

In the past months my focus has been primarily on finding ways to help parents use the power they have — through their words — to build a child’s brain.

Research shows that nearly 85 percent of the brain develops by age 3. The more words a baby hears in that time, the better prepared for school and life that child will be.

The primary purpose of my efforts, as parent outreach coordinator, is to assist parents with children 0 to 3 years old, so they can do their best to ensure that their little ones reach and surpass developmental milestones and are ready when they enter kindergarten.

Key components of our mission to improve the quality of life for everyone in Northwest Florida are building babies’ brains and getting children ready for kindergarten. Helping babies and children oftentimes means helping their parents.

We know that parents are their child’s first teacher, and if we are to have any success in building better babies, we have to reach parents to help them become the best first teachers they can be for their babies’ earliest years and beyond.

One of our initiatives to assist parents in obtaining the tools and skills to talk more frequently and effectively with their babies starts this week.

Representatives from LENA Corp. in Boulder, Colo. will be in Pensacola to train the leaders/facilitators for the Lena Start programs.

The three 13-week, one-hour sessions will begin on Sept. 11. Up to 20 parents per site will attend the sessions to improve their children’s language.  After each meeting, the parents will go home with a free book and their babies will complete one daylong LENA recording (weekly) using the talk pedometer that the baby wears in a special vest.

A baby wearing a Language Environment Analysis (LENA) device. Credit: LENA Foundation.

This technology helps measure talk and gives important feedback on counts of words and interactions that children have with adults during the day.

The Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County already is using LENA Class in a few child-care facilities in Pensacola. LENA Start in Pensacola will the first of its kind in Florida.

The three sites include: Early Head Start at A.A. Dixon, First Presbyterian Learning Center and a combined class sponsored by the Early Learning Coalition. We will expand the sites to seven in January.

Another important step in reaching parents is coming to fruition thanks to a partnership with the Escambia/Pensacola Area Housing Commission.

On Thursday, June 29, I will meet with a group of parents at Moreno Court to provide information about SCI initiatives and get commitments to participate in a parent program at the housing campus.

The Area Housing Commission has been working diligently to set up these meetings with parents. The goal has been to find parents who are motivated and will stick with the program in its entirety, which is planned for eight to 10 weeks.

Moreno Court has a community building, which eliminates the need for transportation. Another site is planned at the Fricker Center for parents who live in Attucks Court.

Dr. Dana Suskind’s book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain.

The goal is to emphasize to parents that the best thing they can do to help their baby’s grow is simple and easy: talk, talk and talk some more. We will use techniques and tools offered through the University of Chicago’s Thirty Million Words Initiative, focusing on the three T’s: Tune in, Take Turns, Talk to.SCI also wants to extend the baby talk philosophy beyond the hospitals through brain bags and the program sites into the homes of parents who may have missed the opportunity to hear and glean information from our outreach programs.

That’s why SCI has begun to provide training to agencies and organizations that make home visits with parents of children 0 to 3. We will provide training for nurses, para-professionals and infant/toddler development specialists at Early Steps, 90Works, ARC Pearl Nelson Center for Children, Healthy Start and Early Head Start.

The training sessions began in June and will continue through July and August.

These whirlwind of activity and programs can become overwhelming for new mothers. So, to help them stay motivated, on track and continue to progress, we want to offer some support and encouragement.

Starting in July, SCI plans to meet with young mothers to ascertain their interest in having a mentor to guide them along the way.

Mentoring Moms are caring women who understand how hard it is to raise a family and want to make life a bit easier for another mother.

Whether it is providing practical help with everyday challenges, such as navigating community resources, or giving emotional support as she sorts through difficult issues, mentors are a healthy outlet and positive presence in a mom’s life.

The first step, of course, is to meet with young mothers to find out if they are interested in having a mentor and what they would like that mentor to provide.

The good news is that after reading blog posts and word of mouth, some women in the community already have expressed interested in becoming a mentor.

In addition, Connie Bookman of Pathways for Change reached out to help. Last year PFC started Stepping Stones, a program that mentors women coming from prison. Bookman wants to launch a forum that could lead to establishing best practices in the training and continuing care of mentors.

She believes a mentoring roundtable, involving groups that offer mentoring, could lead to some significant opportunities for our community. We will meet this week to discuss ways to make this program help young mothers become the best first teachers for their young children.

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 kindergarten.

The more words a baby hears during this time, the better prepared for school and for life she will be. That’s good for the parent, the baby and the community at large.

By building relationships with parents and families and creating partnerships with agencies, organizations and childcare providers, we want to give parents the training and the tools to aid in building their babies brains, which ultimately builds a life and builds a community.

That’s a gift that keeps on giving — one child, one parent, one community at a time.

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.