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Early childhood intervention makes the most difference

  • May 17, 2016
  • Reggie Dogan

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

A child’s education begins well before the first day of school. The most important development that physically forms the brain takes place before the child ever picks up a pencil, reads a book or learns his ABC’s.

Research shows that babies are born learning and more than 85 percent of their brain weight will be developed by age five.

“The earlier we can intervene, the more effective the intervention will be,” says Craig Jones, University of West Florida early childhood education program director. “If it’s (the brain) going to be structured by age 5, we better make sure it’s structured the way we want pre-5.”

Jones was among a group of early education experts who gave presentations at the fourth annual Early Education Summit at Gulf Power.

Sponsored by the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County, the summit highlighted the importance of early childhood education with a primary focus on the implications of brain development research, the adverse effects of of trauma and toxic stress on children and the economic impacts of early childhood education.

Among the goals of the Studer Community Institute is to improve the community’s quality of life, and providing quality education is an integral part of it.

Kindergarten readiness is among 16 key metrics in the Institute’s Pensacola Metro Dashboard. It is also an essential key to preparing children for school and helping them continue toward high school graduation and beyond.

Reams of research point out that when the brain’s structure has a strong foundation in the early years, infants and toddlers are more likely to be robust learners throughout their lives. Children who feel comfortable, safe and engaged have better outcomes in the long run.

At age five, the brain’s basic structure is like an adult, Jones said. That's why developing relationships and communication are so vital in for all infants.

Parents can help stimulate their baby’s brain by developing senses, providing concrete experiences and using language to communicate, Jones added.

Jones referenced Dana Suskind’s Thirty Million Words initiative and her work that discovered a language gap existed between children of different socioeconomic levels — that poor children heard 30 million fewer words than the upper-class children. In March, Suskind of Chicago brought her message to Pensacola in a seminar that attracted more than 400 people interested in early childhood education.

Over the past decade, more and more emphasis has been put on early childhood brain development. Excessive stress can disrupt the development of a child’s brain, and the consequences are far-reaching.

Bruce Watson, executive director of the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County, says that far too often stress in early childhood and the lack of language stimulation can stunt the development of the brain. Chronic stress can turn into toxic stress, damaging all sorts of systems in the brain, he says.

“The first five years hold the most opportunity and vulnerability,” says Watson.

A small amount of stress in the body can promote growth, but toxic stress can have damaging effects on a child’s learning, behavior and health.

When infants and toddlers are regularly ignored, frequently experience violence, or spend much of their time in highly stressful environments, they are considered to be exposed to toxic stress.

The key, Watson says, is getting parents and caregivers involved early and often in the care for babies.

The loving, nurturing relationship that parents, family members, and teachers provide can act as a buffer to the effects of toxic stress.

Without caring adults to buffer them, the stress caused by extreme poverty, neglect, abuse or severe maternal depression can weaken the structure of the developing brain, with long-term consequences for learning, behavior and both physical and mental health.

In the long run, investing in early childhood education is a cost-effective strategy for economic growth.

More than 85 percent of a baby's brain weight will be formed by age five. Yet we spend 90 percent of our education dollars on children over age five. We know now that early childhood is foundational to later success in school and beyond. There are countless studies showing that children who start behind, stay behind.

Rick Harper, the associate vice president for research and economic opportunity at University of West Florida, pointed out that that every dollar invested in early childhood education the community receives a $16 return.

In Escambia County, the effects of poverty on children is well-documented. Harper referred to a 2015 New York Times article that placed Escambia County at the bottom in the state and 2,432 out of 2,478 counties nationwide in poor kids rising out of poverty when they grow up. Only two percent of the counties in the country are worse.

Across the state, more than half — 55 percent — of infants and toddlers grow up in poverty, Harper said.

Our county’s future well-being depends on developing baby’s brains and getting children ready for kindergarten.

“Early childhood intervention is the most important time and this focus is entirely correct,” Harper says. “Eight-five percent of who you are— your intellect, your personality, your social skills — is developed by age five. Let’s invest where it makes the most difference.”

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