17 March 2010

Revisiting the Significance of Public Investment in Pre-K

Last week, the candidates for governor gathered at the Capitol for a panel discussion on issues affecting Tennessee children. One of the issues before the candidates was the future of Tennessee’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

If there is one lesson we should draw from more than forty years of careful scientific research on pre-school, it is that high quality early education makes a world of difference for children. The first few years of life are a period of profound brain development, and the quality of the pre-school experiences of children matters for their school readiness and achievement. Children who attend high quality pre-kindergarten programs are much more likely to reach school ready to learn.

A recent report out of the Tennessee Comptroller’s office appears to minimize the gains made by children in Tennessee’s pre-kindergarten program.
It would be a mistake to take this report at face value.

No children from Memphis City Schools (MCS) were included in the Comptroller’s study. This is an astonishing oversight when Memphis is the largest school district in the state, and has the largest concentration of both low-income and minority children in the state – precisely those cohorts of children most likely to benefit from pre-kindergarten.

The best national data shows that a wealth of benefits for young children and their communities follow when we invest in pre-kindergarten. Middle and upper income children do better when they reach kindergarten. Much more dramatic improvements are made by lower-income children.

When children who otherwise would be at-risk for poor educational outcomes attend high quality pre-kindergarten programs, their language and cognitive abilities improve, they are less likely to fail a grade, and they are more likely to complete high school and to enroll in college.

Memphis City Schools has administered a careful evaluation of children entering and completing pre-kindergarten each year since 2005. The evidence from this evaluation is clear: a year of pre-kindergarten helps children prepare for school. The average 4-year old in Memphis starts pre-k with language skills slightly behind what would be considered typical for a 4 year old nationally. With a year of pre-kindergarten under their belts, these same children are ahead of the curve when it is time to enter kindergarten. These children will show more rapid vocabulary growth as they progress through school, which will translate into stronger reading scores in subsequent grades.

What’s the bottom line? If we look only at the dollars, pre-kindergarten makes phenomenally good sense. For every dollar invested, pre-kindergarten programs return between $4 and $7. These returns are seen in higher rates of high school graduation, higher rates of college attendance, lower rates of teen pregnancy, lower rates of reliance on welfare, and lower rates of criminality.
In short, high quality pre-kindergarten is among the very smartest public investments we can make.

09 March 2010

Electronic medias show mixed effects on children’s emotional and moral development.

Children's optimal development is a function of their early environmental inputs, and electronic media is a key part of that environment. Today, American children are bombarded with electronic media, from television, to video games, computers, and iPods. The Future of Children recently released an evaluation of the effects of media on child well-being. On the one hand, the study found that content intended to encourage pro-social behavior led to increased cooperation, tolerance, and altruism among children. Similarly, children exposed to health marketing campaigns designed to prevent smoking, drug, and alcohol use and to promote physical activity and safe sexual practices were likely to engage in less risky behaviors.

On the other hand, entertainment and news programming led to higher levels of fear and anxiety among children. Similarly, high levels of media consumption are associated with unhealthy behaviors like alcohol and tobacco use. Perhaps most disturbing, young children believe that commercials are simply informative, rather than understanding their potential to manipulate.

The Take Away:
Adults advance healthy social, emotional, and moral development in children when they insure that children are exposed to age appropriate media. Adults should limit advertisement and marketing exposure, while expanding pro-social electronic media access.

Children and electronic media. (2008). The Future of Children, 18(1), Retrieved from http://www.policyforchildren.org/pdf/Children%20and%20Electronic%20Media_18_01_ExecSummary.pdf

The Urban Child Institute Event- "Brain and Body: How The Immune System Makes A Smarter Brain"

The First Years: Early Brain Stimulation May Aid Cognition

By Barbara Holden
Special To My Life

The Neuroscience Institute of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center will feature nationally recognized neuroscience professionals during a national Brain Awareness Week presentation March 18 to promote brain science and positive behaviors that enhance brain development in early childhood.

The Urban Child Institute considers stronger brain development among future generations one of the key long-term strategies for improving quality of life in Shelby County.

One fact we know now is that most brain development occurs in the earliest years of life. Most of the brain's cells are formed before birth, and most connections among cells are made during infancy and early childhood.

"There is no doubt the brain is the most flexible early in life, when synaptic connections are being made and optimized," said Dr. Staci Bilbo, a professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and one of the program's guest speakers.

The free presentation is open to the public and will be held at the Urban Child Institute, 600 Jefferson Ave., at 6:30 p.m. To register, call Brenda Williams at 385-4234 or e-mail her at bwilliams@theurbanchildinstitute.org.

We are fortunate to have this availability of professionals to drive understanding and improvements for early-child brain development in Shelby County.

"This is an event for child care professionals, educators, but really to reach ordinary folks -- parents and caregivers," said Dr. Paul Herron, a professor with the UT Neuroscience Institute. "We want to emphasize brain development so that parents and families have a better understanding of what causes and enriches development, learning and behavior."

A hurdle in education is overcoming a myth that because infants and toddlers aren't talking that not much is happening behind those pretty little faces. Far from it, people in their early years of life have much more brain activity occurring than they will as adults.

"You only have neural cells being born in adults in a very limited capacity," Bilbo said. "Because new neurons and new connections between these cells are the very basis of cognition, you automatically have less of it occurring when you are older than when you are young."

Parents and caregivers can have maximum impact on a young child's brain development by doing a couple of basic things.

First, talk -- a lot -- to your children. Research demonstrates that when children hear more words, spoken in complete sentences, it contributes to making them better learners and achievers later in life.

Second, environment is so important to cognitive development. Children need nurturing, loving care. Singing, playing and reading make a mighty contribution.

Barbara Holden is a director at the Urban Child Institute, a Greater Memphis organization dedicated to promoting early childhood development. The Commercial Appeal is a partner with the Urban Child Institute in this effort to help parents and other care givers learn skills that nurture and educate the minds of infants and children. For more information, go to theurbanchildinstitute.org or dial 211 for the Public Library and Information Center.

* This First Years article appeared in The Commercial Appeal on March 9, 2010.

06 March 2010

Play time supports cognitive and social development that lasts into adulthood

Often dismissed as childish, play may actually be is the most important way for young children to grow, learn about their surroundings, and actually build stronger brains. Play allows young children to hone their attention spans and to learn to focus on specific tasks. When they are at play, children are strengthening their motors skills, visual tracking, and hand-eye coordination. Cooperative play with other children helps to develop creative thinking, problem solving, decision making, and communication skills like listening, cooperating, and negotiating. Despite the growing popularity of expensive playthings, children need very little to maximize their play experiences. Uninterrupted and unstructured play time is important. Children need safe play spaces where they can explore and interact with materials freely. Boxes, spoons, blankets, and bowls can unleash creativity just as effectively as pricey educational toys.

Adults who were allowed adequate play time in childhood are more flexible, more knowledgeable about the world, and are more flexible in their thinking. In contrast, children who were denied play time are much more likely to become adults who are less trustful and less cooperative.

The Take Away: Play helps young children to develop their social, emotional, physical, and cognitive skills. Play-time is an important way to nurture optimal early childhood brain development. Children who play grow into adults who are better able to adapt and navigate through complex environments.

Advance of the science of play. (n.d.). The National Institute for Play, Retrieved from http://www.nifplay.org/science_intro.html

Grace, F. (2010). The Importance of play. Public Agenda, Retrieved from http://publicagenda.org/blogs/the-importance-of-play

Play. (n.d.). Better Brains for Babies, Retrieved from http://www.fcs.uga.edu/ext/bbb/play.php

05 March 2010

New research seeks to understand the link between infant brain development and bipolar disorder in young children

Since the mid 1990’s, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children has increased 4,000%. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) also realizes the damages that premature diagnosis of bipolar disorder can have on young children. In an attempt to reduce the number of diagnosis and the risk factors involved with prescribing medications with possible metabolic side effects, the DSM has created a new title for children that exhibit bipolar characteristics, Temper Dysregulatory Disorder (TDD). Scientists are hoping that the American Psychiatric Association will embrace TDD, rather than labeling children with a chronic, life-long disorder that will require a lifetime of medication.

Two Brown University researchers are studying the link between brain development in infants and later bipolar diagnosis in children. This research will focus on myelination, the creation of the fatty lining that surrounds the brain’s fibers and neurons. Recent studies suggest that abnormal myelination can lead to nuerodevelopmental disorders like autism.

The Take Away: By observing the development of normal myelination in contrast with abnormal myelination, the scientists hope to discern which regions of the brain control language acquisition, motor skills, memory, and vision in children— in addition to how they develop, and how delays are produced.

Spiegel, A. (2010). Children labeled 'bipolar' may get a new diagnosis. National Public Radio, Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123544191&ft=1&f=1001

Two brown faculty to study brain development in infants and children with bipolar disorder. (2009). Medical News Today, Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/173314.php