As Brain Bags build, we find more early learning voices

  • January 13, 2017
  • /   Shannon Nickinson
  • /   early-learning

Once you start thinking about babies, it’s hard to stop.

The staff at the Studer Community Institute is all about babies and their parents. Our work for 2017 is focused on “the first 1,000 days” of a baby’s life.

That translates to the first three years of life, a time frame that research tells us is critical in a child’s brain development.

A key piece of that development is exposure to language in the first 1,000 days. Research tells us that the more words a child hears by age 3, the more growth occurs in their brains. The “achievement gap” — the 30 million word gap between children from low-income families and those from better-off families — shows up in preschoolers and kindergarteners, and if it isn’t closed, it is a gap that many children will struggle to overcome throughout their school lives.

It impacts a child’s grade-level reading scores and a child’s chance of graduating high school on time.

As I am working on securing the content for our IMPACT Brain Bags, set to be distributed to new mothers through our Pensacola area hospitals early this year, my political junkie husband shared with me an episode of “The Axe Files”, a podcast from the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.

The host is David Axelrod, founder of the Institute of Politics and former strategist and advisor to President Barack Obama.

This episode featured Mark Shriver, politician, author and children’s rights advocate whose work with Save the Children has included early education programs for children. He is also the son of Sargent Shriver, who founded the Peace Corps, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of what evolved into the Special Olympics.

Early learning is a passion of Shriver’s, as is clear in the interview.

“The focus on those first five years of life, when 90 percent of brain growth happens, I think is the biggest social justice issue in this country,” Shriver says. “When poor kids at the age of 4 are 18 months behind my kid or your kids and we spend billions of dollars trying to remediate that, it’s outrageous that we don’t do more as a country.”

Shriver cites the investment that states like Oklahoma have made in early learning as models for the federal government to look at to “make a commitment to our poor kids before they enter kindergarten.”

Save the Children reaches parents and young children through the management of Early Head Start and Head Start classrooms and through the Early Steps to School Success program, which was introduced in 2006, according to the group’s website.

Their Early Steps program includes home visit-based coaching for parents of children birth to 3.

At age 3, participants’ language development is assessed using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT). For the 2014-2015 program year:

— Save the Children’s Early Steps to School Success program served more than 7,300 children.

— Eighty-two percent of 3-year-olds in our program scored at or above the normal range for vocabulary acquisition.

— Children ages 0-3 were read to an average of 37 times per month.

In 2015, Save the Children partnered with the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County to offer services to 100 children. The program is looking to expand elsewhere in the state.

I’ve been in touch with folks in Manatee County to get more information about their experience with the program. It may be helpful as SCI looks at strategies to reach parents with tips and training to help them become strong first teachers for young ones.

Look for more to come on that.

It's clear that early education is on a lot of people minds, locally and across the country. It's exciting to think about the role SCI and Pensacola can have on our community.

Maybe one day, folks from other places will come to Pensacola to try to learn how we became obsessed with early learning and built an entire community around the idea that every child deserves the best chance for a good start in school.