28 February 2010

Poverty in early childhood affects the brain in ways that carry into adulthood

Scientists are using new strategies to examine the neurobiological effects of poverty on the developing brain. Through epigenetic profiling, hormonal studies, and neurological brain imaging, researchers can identify the effects of growing up in poverty on brain growth. The scientists find that poverty in early childhood (the first five years) has effects that last into adulthood. Compared to children from middle-income families, children who grew up in poverty finished two fewer years of school, and they worked 451 fewer hours. As a group, poor children grew up to earn about half as much and needed about $800 more in social support. Poverty in childhood also led to a greater chance of being an overweight adult, and doubled the risk of health or psychological problems.

In 2008, 14 million American children lived in poverty. In Memphis, 23% of young children (age five or younger) live in dire poverty – about $10,000 a year for a mother and child. These children are likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and crime. Understanding the negative influence of poverty on early brain development underscores the importance of family income as one factor that promotes optimal brain development.

Due to the current recession, an additional. (n.d.). The Urban Child Institute, Retrieved from http://www.theurbanchildinstitute.org/Download.php?fileId=49da4b38dee2a3.04560655

Duncan, G, Magnuson, K, Boyce, T, & LaShonkoffst, J. (2010). The Long reach of early childhood poverty: pathways and impacts. Center on the Developing Child, Retrieved from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/

LaSantinist, J.L. (2010, February 21). Poverty in childhood can shape neurobiology: study. Yahoo News, Retrieved from http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20100222/sc_afp/sciencesocialpovertyuschildren

25 February 2010

Excessive fear and anxiety are detrimental to brain development

Persistent fear, stress, and anxiety can disrupt brain development in children, causing long-term physical and psychological delays. Fear triggers the stress response system of the brain. Long term stress response activity can disrupt the brain’s circuitry. This is especially detrimental during periods of rapid brain growth like those within the first 3 years of life. Persistent fear, stress, and anxiety in childhood can damage memory, stress regulation, and social/behavioral development. In children younger than 3, continual fear and anxiety can diminish the capacity to learn.

Infants begin to recognize fear between 6 and 12 months old. Children at this age may show anxiety when surrounded by strangers or display fear of a toy that is loud and unpredictable. As they grow, young children begin to exhibit unrealistic fears based within their imagination. These are all normal phases of growth. These fears disappear once children are able to interact socially, control inanimate objects, and differentiate between reality and imagination. Fear that is associated with threatening circumstances and maltreatment is significantly different in nature. It does not disappear.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2010). Persistent Fear and Anxiety Can Affect Young Children’s Learning and Development: Working Paper No. 9. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu

23 February 2010

Affection and attachment are linked to brain development

Positive interactions with adults create emotional information that is integrated by the amygdala and stored in the hippocampus of the developing brain. These interactions including holding, singing, kissing, and gazing, spark neurochemical activities and aid in the organization and wiring of the brain. Even after emotional memories cannot be remembered, they continue to play a large role in relationship development and attachment. One-on-one interactions with adults develop the brain and strengthen the areas that teach children how to communicate in social contexts. Infants who experienced secure, positive interactions with adults are more likely to be able to establish healthy relationships later in life.

Before an infant’s sense of smell, sound, or taste has developed, the sense of touch dominates his experiences with the world. The part of the nervous system responsible for touch is the somatosensory system. It helps to shape health, sensitivity, motor skills, and even emotional wellbeing. Touch therapy and affection have been attributed to better weight gain, healthy growth, and social development in infants. Because brain growth is so rapid within the first year, affectionate interactions are vital for optimal brain development.

Holden, Barbara. (n.d.). The Urban Child Institute, Retrieved from http://www.theurbanchildinstitute.org/Downloads/FirstYearsColumn/03_04_08_Holden.pdf

Attachment and the role of the caregiver. (n.d.). Better Brains for Babies, Retrieved from http://www.bbbgeorgia.org/attachCareGiver.php

Attachment . (n.d.). Better Brains for Babies, Retrieved from http://www.bbbgeorgia.org/attach.php

22 February 2010

Improving the prospects for America's future through early childhood investment

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in Puebla, Mexico on initial and basic education for indigenous and rural children. Puebla is a beautiful and thriving city; and I look forward to returning soon, with my family in tow.

Additionally, the conference was an eye-opening experience in terms of public investment in early childhood development. Early childhood (particularly the period between 0 and 3) is the period of most rapid brain development, and it is the period in which targeted public investments generate the greatest financial and social returns.

While we in the United States tend to think about education as starting at kindergarten or first grade, the Mexican state of Puebla is pushing to begin their educational process much earlier. They envision a universal system of center-based education for children between the ages of 3 and 7 (the period of basic education). Meanwhile, they are developing a curriculum for initial education between a child’s birth and age 3.

The OAS conference drew speakers from Brazil, Columbia, Peru, Venezuela, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Bolivia, the United States, and Canada, and it was striking to see the common ground shared across each of these national contexts. First, there was a keen sense of the challenges confronting the entire hemisphere. Futurists tell us that the kindergartners entering school next fall will emerge from the educational system in a dozen years or so into a world far different from the present; they will apply for jobs that don’t yet exist; and will be expected to master technologies that have yet to be invented.

Moreover, the odds of maintaining a competitive position in the workforce of the future are daunting, given worldwide population trends. To see this, we need only compare the number of children in North America with the number in India in China. There are roughly ten times as many Indian and Chinese children as there are North American children. (In other words, there are as many third graders in the top ten percent of the class in India and China as there are third graders in all classrooms in the U.S. and Canada combined; and the same is true for every grade).

How then do we best prepare our children for the world they will inherit? Here, again, the presenters in Puebla shared a similar message: The seeds of academic and life-long success are sown long before children reach school. Rightly, we lament the achievement gap that emerges between ethnic and racial groups, and between children of the poor and children of the middle-class, with lasting implications for individuals, families, and communities. But much of this achievement gap has its origin in early childhood development. In other words, to a large degree, a child’s success in school is a product of their early childhood experiences and early brain development – all of which takes place long before children enter kindergarten.

The scholars at the OAS conference were quick to highlight the good news in this story: First, a half century of careful research on early childhood brain development helps us to understand how to improve the developmental well-being of children. Second, these early years present an extraordinary opportunity to shape the future not only of children – but also of societies. This is because there is tremendous plasticity in the developing brain.

Third, the research is equally clear that – as a cohort, children who experience strong and nurturing early childhoods are likely to do better over the long term, both in school and in other facets of life.

And here is the best news of all: by maximizing the likelihood that young children will develop to their full capacity, societies have the greatest chance of shaping their own futures in the face of growing uncertainty.

16 February 2010

Family mealtimes assist in the development of relationships, language, and motor skills

Hectic work and family schedules make it difficult to plan family meals. Although 80 percent of American families say that they value family meals, only a third of families actually eat a meal together daily. Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests that family meals are a great way to promote optimal social, emotional, and cognitive early childhood development. Healthy and nutritious meals support optimal brain development. Additionally, regular family mealtimes are an opportunity for infants to learn motor skills, be introduced to new words, and develop good eating habits. Through positive interactions and engaged eye contact, routine family meals can create trusting, supportive relationships between parents and children. Infants begin to feed themselves between 6 and 12 months of age, helping their development of fine motor skills. The mouth muscles that are exercised during self-feeding are also important in speech development. When families eat together, children hear new vocabulary and learn how to express their ideas. When parents work to include family meals in their schedules, children tend to be healthier, to do better academically, and to learn stronger communication skills.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest finds that meals cooked at home are much healthier as well. They contain half the calories than those in restaurants, are higher in calcium and fiber, and lower in saturated fats. As children get older, mealtimes offer an opportunity for parents to discuss values, expectations, school, and friends. Children who share family meal times are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol as adolescents. For more information on how to customize nutritious meals for your family, visit http://www.mypyramid.gov/

Holden, B. (n.d.). The Urban Child Institute, Retrieved from http://www.theurbanchildinstitute.org/Download.php?fileId=4936d4066bcdf9.39496939

Holden, B. (n.d.). Special to my life. The Urban Child Institute, Retrieved from http://tiny.cc/TUCI380

Mealtimes matter for healthy brain development. (n.d.). Better Brains for Babies, Retrieved from http://www.bbbgeorgia.org/physicalMealtimes.php

11 February 2010

Trends in health care coverage for American children are mixed: eligibility has expanded, but states – including Tennessee – are cutting back

Access to health care is a fundamental component of optimal early childhood brain and physical development. Across Tennessee, 158, 759 children were without health insurance in 2008. Meanwhile, an additional 646,054 children from families in poverty received health care coverage through the TennCare program. In Shelby County alone, 133,864 children received health insurance coverage through Tenncare. Across the state, an additional 32,069 children in low-income families were insured through the state CHIP program, CoverKids. In Shelby County, 4,054 children received insurance through CoverKids. In spite of rising unemployment and growing numbers of families in poverty, a lack of funds caused the state CoverKids program to suspend enrollment in December of last year.

In 2008, state Children’s Health Insurance Programs (CHIP) coupled with the federal Medicaid program provided health benefits to more than 35 million children nationwide. Outreach efforts and expanded program eligibility resulted in a reduction in the number of uninsured children across the U.S. (falling from 8.1 million in 2007 to 7.3 million in 2008). There is more good news when it comes to health care for children: the passage of the CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2009, is estimated to mean that an additional 2.6 million previously uninsured children will gain health insurance coverage.

Every Child Matters Education Fund. (2010). Where Health care reform stands in congress. Retrieved from http://www.everychildmatters.org/National/News/Where-Health-Care-Reform-Stands-in-Congress.html

Insure Kids Now. (n.d.). Facts and figures. Retrieved from http://www.insurekidsnow.gov/facts/index.html

Kaiser Health News. (2010). Millions more children added to medicaid, chip rolls in 2009. Retrieved from http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/Stories/2010/February/04/chip-medicaid.aspx

The Urban Child Institute, . (2009). Covering kids' health needs. Center for Urban Child Policy, Retrieved from http://www.theurbanchildinstitute.org/Download.php?fileId=4abcdd75c831c2.31242311

10 February 2010

The Evidence Is Clear: Breastfeeding Promotes Optimal Brain Development In Early Childhood

The evidence continues to mount: breastfeeding promotes optimal early childhood brain development (See: Following AAP, the American Dietetic Association Supports Exclusive Breastfeeding For Six Months, Revised WIC Guidelines Provide Incentives To Breastfeeding Families, Two U.S. Health Organizations Collaborate To Improve Breastfeeding Rates). Breastfed babies do better when they reach kindergarten and as they progress through school, and they score higher on IQ tests (Horwood & Ferguson, 1998; Tanaka, Kon, Ohkawa, Yoshikawa, & Shimizu, 2009).

But what exactly is it about breastfeeding that would account for such a dramatic effect?
The answer: Human milk is packed with health-advancing nutritional benefits that promote optimal brain development in very young children. According to Melinda Johnson, nutrition instructor at Arizona State University and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, “It’s not just one mechanism…The nutrition [provided by breastfeeding] is perfect for the growing child…DHA [an omega-3 fatty acid found in breastmilk] is critical for brain development and also for nervous system development.” The existence of this crucial acid in breastmilk may help to clarify the evidence that breastfed children perform better in the educational environment (Doheny, 2010).

Additionally, human milk also includes the amino acid taurine, acknowledged for its significance for maximum neurological growth. “Newborns and preemies cannot manufacture taurine,” stated Dr. Ruth Lawrence, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ section on breastfeeding, “Taurine is one of the amino acids needed for brain growth. The brain will double in size in the first year of life…We in the breastfeeding field have been focusing on brain growth [and its importance] for a number of years.”

Despite the proven benefits, breastfeeding rates are low in Shelby County and across the state of Tennessee. Only about half (53.6%) of Shelby County mothers intend to breastfeed their infants immediately after birth, compared with 59.2% of mothers across the rest of Tennessee. Meanwhile, Healthy People 2010, the nation’s health agenda, established target breastfeeding rates of 75% at birth (For more information on breastfeeding trends in Memphis, please see Strategies for Improving Rates in Shelby County).

Policy Suggestions To Promote Breastfeeding In Our Community:

- Build Employer Support for Breastfeeding. Supply breast pumps to moms who can’t afford to purchase or rent them. Promote corporate education and support of the current law requiring procurement of break time and suitable space to express breast milk.

- Encourage Community Engagement. Actively engage husbands, partners and companions in physician visits, social support consultations, and breastfeeding promotion gatherings. Breastfeeding must emerge as the familiar and expected manner of infant feeding.

For more information on the well-being of children in Memphis and Shelby County, please visit The Urban Child Institute website at http://www.theurbanchildinstitute.org/Home.


Doheny, K. (2010, January 3). For baby and mom alike, breast-feeding may be best. HealthDay Reporter: Yahoo! News.

Horwood, L.J. & Fergusson, D.M. (1998). Breastfeeding and later cognitive and academic outcomes. Pediatrics, 101, 1-7.

Tanaka, K., Kon, N., Ohkawa, N., Yoshikawa, N., & Shimizu, T. (2009). Does breastfeeding in the neonatal period influence the cognitive function of very-low-birthweight infants at 5 years of age? Brain and Development, 31(4), 288-293.

Nationwide, the cost of quality childcare is rising faster than inflation

A growing body of scientific evidence makes it abundantly clear: high quality early childhood care and educational experiences help to promote optimal early childhood brain development. This foundation, in turn, provides a solid base for subsequent growth, development, and school readiness. Across the country, over 80% of professional families place their young children in high quality early learning centers during the work-week. Meanwhile, according to a recent report from NACCRRA, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, high-quality care is growing increasingly unaffordable for middle and low-income families – precisely those families whose children would most benefit from high-quality early-childhood interventions.

Across the country, childcare expenses account for 10% of family income for two-parent families. For single parents, meanwhile, childcare expenses account for an astonishing 60% of the median household income (NACCRRA, 2009). In every region of the United States, the market-rate for quality childcare prices it far beyond the reach of most single-parents. Single-parents with one child pay more for childcare than they pay for food. Single parents with two children pay more for childcare than for rent. The average yearly childcare costs for an infant surpass 4-year public college tuition rates in 39 states.

Parents and the high price of child care: 2009 update. (2009). National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies, Retrieved from http://www.naccrra.org/docs/publications/supporting-docs/parents-and-the-high-price-of-child-care-2009-update/executive-summary.pdf

Devlin, K, Breland, F, & Imig, D. (2009). Updates on data, education and policy. The Urban Child Institute, Retrieved from http://www.theurbanchildinstitute.org/Download.php?fileId=4ac3b9cb2120d7.54160006

05 February 2010

Shelby County receives $1.6 million to expand accessibility to Early Head Start programs

Research shows that at-risk children who have the benefit of Early Head Start experience improved cognitive, social, and emotional development. EHS children score higher on language growth measurements, display fewer behavioral problems, interact more positively with adults, and are less likely to test into the “at-risk” category of developmental performance. Children in EHS are more likely to receive immunizations on time and to visit a physician due to illness. Moreover, parents of EHS children are more likely to engage in practices that support early learning, read to their children daily, attend school functions, and provide emotional support.

Early Head Start is a program designed to serve children from birth through age three. Early Head Start offers center-based care, home-based prenatal care, parental support, age appropriate learning, medical services, disability and mental health screenings, evaluations, and early intervention services.

Currently, there are 12,479 children income eligible for Early Head Start in Shelby County. However, there are spots available for less than one percent of these children. Limited space may be expanding as the Department of Health and Human Services announces an additional $1.6 million in grants to expand EHS in Shelby County.

03 February 2010

Every parent needs to know: Language development begins at birth, and early literacy skills help children succeed in school

Zero to Three offers good advice for new parents about how to help develop literacy in young children. Children’s relationships with books, capacity to communicate, and ability to read are directly related to their experiences with language. When parents and caregivers make books available and fun, and when they sit down to read with young children, they are helping prepare those children to succeed in kindergarten and elementary school, building their self esteem, problem-solving abilities, and social skills.

Language acquisition begins at birth. Parents should talk to babies often and with a wide vocabulary. The Urban Child Institute informs parents and caregivers about the importance of responsiveness and language exchanges. Responsive parents try to recognize their babies’ signals, allowing parent and child to communicate through a mixture of words and facial expressions. These exchanges foster brain development and prepare infants to begin sounding out different phonemes.

Positive interactions with books and play help to develop literacy among infants. Allow children to play with books in unconventional ways. Sound books, pop-up pages, and bright colors can capture the attention of infants. Naming objects in pictures aids in language acquisition. Ask children to pick out books with a specific characteristic. Creating a book with pictures of family members is a fun way to learn names and relationship words like uncle, brother, and dog.

Toddlers can improve their motor skills by interacting with “lift the flap” books. Parents and caregivers encourage a familiarity with words by posting them around the house or childcare center. Match objects around you with pictures in books. Read stories about going for a walk or about bedtime as ways to introduce those activities. Letter magnets and crayons help introduce letters, words, and the mechanics of writing. Most importantly, adults should encourage and support early literacy by providing children with ample conversation opportunities.

01 February 2010

Undercounting may cheat poor children in Memphis out of federal funds.

Title I funds provide federal support to schools with high percentages of poor children. Districts also have the option of targeting Title I funds to pre-school programs designed to support the optimal early development of at-risk children. The formula used to apportion Title I funding is based on the child poverty rate in a district relative to other states and districts. The result of this formula is that a state could experience both an increase in child poverty and a decrease in Title I funding (if poverty rates in other states rise more rapidly).

The New America Foundation has an easily navigable web feature that allows users to type in their school districts and see 2007 funding statistics, 2009 allocation estimates, student enrollment, student demographics, and poverty percentages. Users can also compare their school district with other districts within the state; as well as with state and national averages.

The New America Foundation’s calculator paints a disturbing picture of the well-being of children in Memphis and Tennessee. The rate of student poverty in Tennessee is 50 percent higher than the national average of 13.2 percent. As we would expect, the share of Memphis City School (MCS) children in poverty is another 30 percent higher than the state average, and double the national average. Even more disturbing for policy-makers, the federal statistics used in the foundation’s calculator undercount the share of poor students in Memphis by 12 percent. (According to Department of Education figures, 70.8 percent of MCS students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch, while MCS reports that 81 percent of students are actually eligible for the school lunch program).