Strong starts and strong futures: The reality of early childhood education

The Urban Child Institute connects the dots between education from age zero to three and the success of children.  They'll host an annual symposium, Brain Awareness Night, next week to encourage the community to become more involved in early childhood education and language development.
Famed scientist James Watson once wrote, "The brain is the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe." And the human brain is never more wondrous than in its infancy.

A newborn baby’s brain will add more neurons between age zero and three than at any other time.  By age three, the brain will reach 80 percent of its adult volume. The brain creates more connections than it will need—having up to twice as many connections in infancy as it will in adulthood.  Eventually, the brain begins to “prune” or eliminate the unused synapses. The experiences of a child from age zero to three play a big role in determining which of those surplus connections are retained and which are pruned. In other words, brain development in the zero to three year old presents the ultimate “use it or loose it” scenario in child development.

Simply put, the first three years of life are a period of incredible growth in all areas of a baby's development. The science may sound complex, but the consequences of positive experience during this period are straightforward in their importance.

Memphis has become ground zero for K-12 education reform in our nation. Support for improving the quality and quantity of pre-kindergarten education opportunities is growing across the city. But what if the best early start–a crucial early start–happens before a child ever enters a Pre-K classroom?

It is the task of the Urban Child Institute (UCI) to get brain development on parents' minds. The organization continues to lead a call to action, to focus efforts and attention on the well-being of children in Shelby County during the critical ages of zero to three.

With the collaborative efforts of the RAND Corporation, UCI is dedicated to improving the lives of area children and, ultimately, tackling the broad problems facing the Memphis community. After collecting research around child development, the organization has turned that knowledge into meaningful action that will hopefully impact existing policies and programs in the region.

“We know from numerous studies that investments made in the first three years of a child's life return significantly more benefits to a community than at any other time in the life-cycle,” said Scott Wilson, Director of Communications for UCI.

The Information Gap
UCI has found that raising awareness about early childhood development—and the high dividends from early investment—is uniquely challenging. For Wilson, early childhood education is a community issue, not one isolated to those with young children. How does Memphis, collectively, come to understand the importance of this education, and how can everyone participate in it?

For UCI, that education happens in part with community events like their upcoming Brain Awareness Night. Next Thursday, Mar. 12 from 6 to 8pm at UCI (600 Jefferson), educational speakers will offer an in depth discussion of early childhood issues, specifically spotlighting the importance of early literacy and language development in our children’s first years.

Brain Awareness Night is produced in partnership with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Neuroscience Institute. This year’s invited speakers are Helen Perkins, Ed.D., from the University of Memphis and Daniela O’Neill, Ph.D., from the University of Waterloo (Canada).
The event is free and open to the public (with free parking), and Wilson reiterates that it is important even for those without children.

“We should all share a commitment to the well-being of the children in our community. Wherever you are in our society, you can make a difference. For some in leadership, it may be impacting the way a policy is designed or implemented. For others it may be making different choices in how you raise your children. For others without children, or with children who are grown, it may be volunteering to read at your local day care or community center or volunteering to mentor a young mother. All you have to do is look around. The opportunities are endless.”

In Shelby County, this is a message we struggle with. Not everyone has young children, and it may be hard for the older business owner to see the long-term impact of supporting early childhood education.

Wilson draws connections to issues that the community does embrace as "everyone's problem." If children aren't given this vital start, they are less equipped for success overall, therefore making a less talented and skilled workforce for that business owner. Large scale issues like poverty, workforce development, and crime all link back to the early childhood piece.  

Considered one of Memphis’ leading authorities on literacy, speaker Dr. Perkins said, “We want to make sure that our young children are as educated as they can be—and this doesn’t have a race, this doesn’t have a color, this doesn’t have a social class. It’s just a fact of life that if we want our children to add to the community, then they must be successful in the early ages.”

The ABCs of Early Development
What may seem like commonplace parenting knowledge to some may be unheard of to others. The solutions to these development deficiencies are a mouse click away—found in great detail on the UCI website.  Some may not know, for example, the importance of reading to a baby.  While it may seem silly to read to a child who cannot yet speak, the results can be profound.

“Research has shown that children who are read to during infancy and the preschool years have better language skills when they start school and are more interested in reading. Even more importantly, parents who spend time reading to their children create nurturing relationships, which is important for a child’s cognitive, language and social-emotional development," said Wilson.

"So, the moral of the story is: Read to your babies early and often!”

The Urban Child Institute reports developmentally appropriate parenting tips, and is particularly interested in reaching their target audience of parents in at-risk neighborhoods. The latter presents more of a challenge.

According to the UCI’s findings, there is a large discrepancy between neighboorhoods’ understanding of these research based findings.  How then, can a person in one zip code, who places great emphasis on early childhood development research, effect those in other zip codes who may not know the importance of it?

Annually, the Urban Child Institute compiles and publishes data about the children of Shelby County.  Since 2006, their yearly findings can be accessed in a comprehensive document, Off to a Good Start:  Social and Emotional Development of Memphis’ Children. This publication details the social and emotional development of Memphis children and is meant to highlight community challenges while inspiring action and decision-making supported by the data.

“Too often, the discussions around early childhood center only on cognitive measures; things like test scores and performance metrics.  Far less attention has been paid to the abilities that help build social and emotional skills. We have come to understand that these 'soft skills' that are built in nurturing, caring relationships are at least as important as the cognitive skills and together, they largely determine success in life,” said Wilson.

UCI also hopes reading this data will prompt the public to help.
And getting involved couldn't be easier. UCI has created a directory of Memphis-based organizations that can always use volunteers and supporters. And public symposiums, like next week's Brain Awareness Night, help the public find their entry point on the issue.

Going forward, UCI hopes to target a broader cross-section of the community with events like Brain Awareness Night. Whether a parent, grandparent, educator, minister, caregiver, businessperson, or someone active in civic and nonprofit activities, Wilson thinks you will find the symposium captivating and interesting.

Wilson adds, “literacy advocates and organizations, early childhood advocates, local policy makers, early childhood training and certification organizations, teacher's groups, childcare licensing and training groups, childcare owners and operators, and parents,” to the list of targeted attendees.

“This generation will be the next wave of leaders, neighbors, employees, entrepreneurs and business owners.  As a community, don't we want a strong future? A rising tide lifts all boats," he said.

Read more articles by Kate Crowder.

Kate Crowder is a freelance writer and veteran educator who has taught for over a decade in public schools. The longtime Memphian and mother of three is frequently found on the stage as musician, actor, or director when not filling her role as contributor and Assistant Editor at High Ground News.
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