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Brain Child: Early Brain Development Key for Future

by Chris Peck, Scripps Howard News Service, May 28, 2003

Advocates for building better brains in children are doing nothing less than trying to start a revolution.

It is a revolution, they believe, that must be central to any discussion of homeland security because this is a revolution that can profoundly affect the future of this nation.

"Forget having a viable social security system for retiring baby boomers," says Lise Eliot, assistant professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School. "If we don't address this issue of early brain development, who do we think will be paying into the system down the road?"

Today, 30 percent of young people entering kindergarten already are woefully behind in their readiness to learn. They are behind because their brains have not evolved in the most productive manner. The environment in which they were raised has impeded their innate ability to think, read, and socialize. And once behind, always behind, research shows. Eight in 10 kids who enter school not ready to learn mostly don't catch up by 4th grade, or 8thgrade, or 12th grade. Then, they enter adulthood and the workforce unprepared for life.

"Birth to age three is the critical period for social and emotional development," says Dr. Jane Wiechel, president of the National Association for the Education of Young People in Washington, D.C. "If you aren't exposed early in life to experiences that will enhance brain development, it is an unfortunate fact of life that your brains' plasticity declines throughout the rest of your life."

Brains must be shaped and formed early. We know this. Yet there is reluctance in our society to intervene early in the lives of children and their often ill-prepared parents to try to train both mother and child the skills they need. "We are more concerned about fixing the holes in our streets than we are about fixing the minds of our children," says Wiechel.

We build prisons, reform schools, and spend millions on special education in the upper grades. And most of this is money spent too late to change many lives.

Brainpower that slips away early means millions of children have lost their best chance at becoming doctors rather victims of violence.

Brains that suffer stunted social development are far less likely to evolve into the minds of lawyers and far more likely to evolve into the minds of defendants in juvenile and criminal court.

Young brains that don't learn the essentials of human emotion will have a far more difficult time becoming functional, caring parents to their own offspring.

This is why the early childhood development champions believe their efforts can, and must, begin to take shape as a broad, social movement not unlike the civil rights movement, or the drive to stamp out polio.

But how does a revolution begin?

What can those who so want to change the fates of at-risk children do in their own communities to create a tipping point where the care of young minds becomes a top of mind priority?

The good news is that much can be done.

The movement now taking shape to nurture and save young brains begins with a single, bedrock belief: Change is possible.

"This is a fixable problem," says David Lawrence, President of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation in Florida, and the person largely responsible for that state's recent approval of a voluntary pre-kindergarten training for every child. "The power to fix this rests at the local level, with local people."

Already, the outline of a national movement can be seen taking shape. In communities from California to Texas, Illinois to Florida, exceptional people are championing the cause of saving young brains. For example:

Phyllis Wyne, president of the Board of Education in Birmingham, Alabama now spends her time getting books into the homes of those who don't them. She keeps the issue of early childhood education on the front burner of the local school board. She goes anywhere and talks to anyone about the need for tending to the development of young children. "People need to be inundated with this stuff," she says.

Dr. Douglas Wood, president of the Tennessee State School Board, is now urging the state legislature to shift from a traditional emphasis on K-12 classrooms to give more money and attention to pre-kindergarten programs. Money for that shift likely will be included in this year's Tennessee state budget.

David Lawrence, former Publisher of The Miami Herald and now president of Florida's Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, led the effort in Florida to get voters to approve funding so that every young child in the state will have access to pre-kindergarten education.
Where these efforts are most successful, both public and private sectors have been involved. Public schools and state and local governments have been players. But issues related to early childhood development also resonate within the business community. A functional workforce and the costs of remedial education and criminal justice directly impact the costs of doing business.

For this revolution to be complete, the activists say, good ideas need to spread fast. When one community finds success in teaching parenting skills to single mothers or improving local day care, the successes need to be shared and copied.

Above all, activists say, opinion leaders, information providers and caring parents must recognize the critical importance of this movement to all children and the entire nation. "It's not about those kids, but about all of our children," says Florida champion Lawrence.

Activists believe their early childhood development movement will lead to a revolution in the way our nation addresses the needs of young brains when mainstream civic leaders, politicians and parent groups see it as a local opportunity that has national implications.



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