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Brain Child: Finding the Key

by David Waters, Scripps Howard News Service, May 25, 2003
Editor's Note: Starting today, the Daily News is running a four-day series on early brain development and how scientific findings are revolutionizing the education of young children, from birth to kindergarten. Reporters from the Scripps Howard newspapers, including the Daily News, participated in the national reporting project. The series begins by looking at brain science and brain-based parenting where the emphasis is on stimulating young minds for optimal learning. Successive days examine child-care programs and intervention efforts for children at risk of failing in school; initiatives across the country for developing a brain-based curriculum; and the national movement toward universal pre-kindergarten and what it will take to get there.

By the time we drop them into the kindergarten pool, some of our children start swimming through society like little Olympians.

Others dog paddle or tread water. They will learn in due time.

Others just start sinking.

The differences among them aren't in their genes. They're in their heads, or more specifically, their brains.

Thanks to the latest brain-imaging technologies, our brains know more than ever about our brains.

What we know is slowly but surely revolutionizing our approach to learning.

In homes, day cares, preschools, school districts, government offices, and foundation boardrooms across the country, there's a growing movement to apply the new brain science to early childhood education.

Over the next four days, reporters for Scripps Howard newspapers will look at how the new brain research is driving national, state, local and home efforts to pay more attention to a child's first five years.

Those efforts are changing everything from prenatal care to day care, from public policy to private philanthropy, from approaches to Head Start to assumptions about when children should start school to get and stay ahead.

Those efforts are the collective brainchild of thousands of enlightened scientists, psychologists, educators, politicians, philanthropists and parents.

"We are the first humans on Earth to know intelligence is not fixed at birth. The brain is not complete. It's changing with every experience," said Rick Hulefeld, a child care director in Kentucky and one of the nation's leading brain science missionaries, told reporter Peggy Kreimer.

"When you're holding a child and you talk to that child, millions of connections are being made in that child's brain. And they're different connections depending on how you hold the baby and how you talk to the baby. That is extraordinary."

Research on the developing human brain is developing at an extraordinary pace.

"We've learned more about the brain and brain development in past 10 years than in all of previous recorded history," said Craig Ramey, professor of health and psychology at Georgetown University. "We've more than doubled our knowledge in the past five years."

We've learned that the human brain's most explosive, expansive and crucial years are from the womb to the kindergarten classroom.

We've learned that the developing brain is enabled and enhanced by positive, nurturing and enriching stimulation from parents and other close caregivers.

We've also learned that the developing brain is disabled or damaged by the lack of such stimulation, or by the presence of negative, stressful, or violent stimulation.

"The quality of the environment and the kind of experiences children have may affect brain structure and function so profoundly that they may not be correctable after age 5," Ramey said in "Ghosts from the Nursery," a 1997 book that examined the roots of violence.

In other words, by age 5, a child's brain is wired to think, learn, trust, relate, communicate, compute, analyze, and explore.

Or it isn't.

The new brain science affirms what educators have known forever: The child's first and most important teacher is the parent in the home.

Babies, infants and toddlers can't get the vital, positive, nourishing mental stimulation their brains need from radio, TV, or even the Internet. They can't get it from the mayor, superintendent or school board.

They can get it only from a parent or surrogate parent who talks and reads to them tenderly, touches and holds them lovingly, and shows them everything from their toes to the moon.

Such positive, talkative, engaged parenting nourishes the child and the child's brain and can help the child overcome just about any socioeconomic obstacles or disadvantages.

Unfortunately, as science writer Ronald Kotulak pointed out a decade ago, four in 10 American children start out with one, two or three parenting strikes against them. Their mothers are immature, uneducated, or unmarried.

Add the stress of poverty, neglect, abuse, drugs, alcohol and violence, and many kids start school with more than three strikes against them.

By the time millions of children in this country reach kindergarten, they and their brains are far behind intellectually, emotionally, and socially.

They've never held a pencil or seen a book, never been taught to count to 10 or to say their ABCs, never heard an encouraging word. What they have heard and seen would chill Stephen King.

"In the course of the first three years, a totally dependent child will build an incredibly complex new brain that will enable him or her to walk, talk, analyze, care, love, play, explore, and have a unique emotional personality," Kotulak wrote in "Inside the Brain." The book is based on his Pulitzer Prize winning articles on new brain research.

"Unfortunately, for a growing number of children, the period from birth to age 3 has become a mental wasteland ... . A growing number of children enter the school system with intellectual deficits that could have been prevented by early mental stimulation."

Fortunately, many children get the vital intellectual, emotional and social stimulation they need at home in their first few years.

And others get it in enriching day cares or preschools.

But too many children don't get it all. So they sink, for factors over which they have no control.

Over the next four days, Scripps Howard reporters will look at how the new brain science can help us rescue every child - not only to leave no child behind, but also to bring every child forward.

"I believe this research is so compelling, that in light of what we know, we should put it to use in our daily lives as parents, teachers, business people and policy makers," Los Angeles school Supt. Roy Romer told reporter Ann Work.

Now that we know the brain science, the challenge is to apply it.



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