A quality early learning environment may be just what the doctor ordered.
That's the suggestion from a policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics issued Aug.11.
"Children’s early experiences are all educational, whether they are at home, with extended family and friends, or in early education and childcare settings," writes Elaine Donoghue in an article in the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"Early education does not exist in a silo; learning begins at birth and occurs in all environments," Donoghue wrote. "Early brain and child development research unequivocally demonstrates that human development is powerfully affected by contextual surroundings and experiences."
The policy statement says that pediatricians' input into quality ratings improvement systems on physical health and well-being standards can enhance those systems. Health professionals can also provide developmental, vision, oral health and hearing screenings at childcare centers.
Such services can help flag issues early on and can be an avenue to help direct parents to resources in the community for help.
What else can pediatricians do?
— Talk with parents about childcare arrangements they've made and stress the importance of a quality childcare experience.
— Form a network of collaboration among the family and the childcare providers in that child's life. This collaboration is good for every child, but it can have even more benefits for children with developmental or special needs.
— Be a resource when children are having behavior issues in a childcare setting. Making sure parents and caregivers understand the triggers for behavioral problems, as well as the signs of things like toxic stress, can be a huge help.
— Be an advocate for the importance of early childhood education. Help your community understand the science of early brain development and what it means for a child's future.Click here to read the full policy paper.
The importance of the first three years of a child's life is not news to doctors. Research that has emerged in the last 20 years has reinforced how important those years are to a child's brain growth.
Research also has shown the strong correlation between that early brain development and a child's school readiness come kindergarten.
What our health professionals can do is to help translate what can seem like dense information into what parents, grandparents and caregivers can do to help those little brains grow.
Escambia County is lucky to have a great public advocate for this cause in Dr. John Lanza, who leads the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County. Lanza is a pediatrician by speciality. Children are his thing.
His staff has been engaged in the hard work of building healthy bodies and minds for years in our community. It's work that needs done, as data from the state Health Department shows that in Escambia County, 30.6 percent of middle and high school students are considered overweight or obese. Only 23.6 percent of middle and high schoolers were active for 60 minutes a day on all of the past seven days.
Time to play is absolutely essential to a child's healthy growth — physically and intellectually. It's benefits are well-researched. Read more about that here.
Dr. Lanza and the Health Department staff get this. They have sponsored Born Learning Trails at places like Bryan Park and others to encourage parents and kids to get active together.
Their 5-2-1-0 healthy living campaign has worked to spread the message that less electronic time and more moving around time is good for kids — and adults.
From the beginning of the Studer Community Institute's Brain Bag project, Dr. Lanza and his team at the Health Department have been great partners, providing information for our community binder to help parents to build good habits in eating, health and play from the very beginning.
He knows that those first 1,000 days of a child's life are a crucial time for laying the basic wiring of the brain.
He knows about the tie between that growth and a child's readiness for school. He knows that kindergarten readiness is an indicator of a child's chances of proceeding through school at grade level.
And he knows that data from the Florida Office of Early Learning tell us that 66 percent of our children are ready for kindergarten — leaving about one-third who aren't ready.
And he knows well the role that education plays in a person's health and well-being — and the toll that the lack of it takes on our community from a health and an economic standpoint.
Bringing pediatricians into the effort to create an Early Learning City is a key next step in that campaign's evolution. Those well-baby and well-child visits present a captive audience with parents.
Having everyone sing from the Hymnal of Early Brain Development will be music to everyone's ears — and fuel for a revolution to turn our community's fortunes to the better.