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Positive Parenting Overcomes the Effects of Poverty on Brain Development

New research shows that positive parenting can overcome the effects of poverty on healthy brain development in adolescents.  In a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Brody and colleagues described a neuroimaging study demonstrating that supportive parenting prevented the reduced growth of certain areas of the brain that occurred as a response to living in poverty.

Positive parenting and brain development

Numerous studies on the association of poverty with poor academic and psychosocial outcomes in childhood have pointed to the critical role of stress on brain development. Physical and social stress that often occurs during childhood in lower socioeconomic environments can influence the growth of the brain. In particular, there is evidence that development of the amygdala and hippocampus, brain regions that support learning, memory, mood and stress reactivity, is suppressed in disadvantaged children.

Brody et al conducted a neuroimaging study on 119 25-year-olds who had participated as adolescents in the Strong African American Families randomized trial (SAAF), a program designed to mitigate the negative effect of life stress on rural African American youths by encouraging positive parenting.  The intention of the study was to correlate the size of specific areas of the hippocampus and amygdala in these individuals, as determined by magnetic resonance imaging, with the number of years between the ages of 11 and 18 that they had lived under the federal poverty line. 

The results showed that, in the control population that had not been enrolled into the SAAF program, more time spent living in poverty was associated with smaller than average volume in areas of the amygdala and hippocampus. The good news was that this suppressive effect of poverty on brain maturation was prevented in those youths whose families had the benefit of the SAAF intervention. The promotion of positive parenting had conferred resilience to the stress of poverty. Importantly, this protective effect was detected at age 25 - it had lasted into adulthood. 

Interestingly, these positive results were achieved in a program serving the families of adolescent children. More than 95% of brain development occurs during the first six years of life, and the brain is particularly susceptible to the stress associated with poverty during this timeframe

Through the Reach Out and Read program, pediatric care providers are able to take advantage of their access to children during these early years. They encourage parents to spend time engaging with their young children through looking at books together starting in infancy,building the parent-child bonds that will alleviate the effects of adverse circumstances in the early years. 

This study encourages us that, through interventions that help parents to bring up their children in a positive, responsive way, it is possible to buffer against the consequences of poverty and low socioeconomic environments.  Leveling the playing field for disadvantaged children in this way can contribute to closing the achievement gap.

Written by Nikki Shearman at 08:32

How To Promote Positive, Responsive Early Childhood Parenting

A look at how to encourage families to adopt positive, responsive parenting practices using the framework proposed in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard

 

It is widely accepted that our experience in the first 1,000 days of life sets the stage for later success and that America's growing achievement gap is best attacked by targeting the development of children from infancy. Given that parents or caregivers are the main influence in young children's lives, programs like Reach Out and Read that effectively provide parents with the information and tools they need to give their children the best start in life have a powerful effect on our communities and society.

The success of any intervention depends on getting people to embrace change, and this is a particular challenge for programs that aim to promote a difference in parenting styles. Encouraging families, whose parenting is a deeply engrained response to their own childhood, to adopt new practices is an aspect of any early childhood intervention that needs to be carefully considered.

switch coverI recently read the book Switch, subtitled How to Change Things When Change is Hard by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. I'm a little late to the table, as Switch was published to great acclaim in 2010, and was on the New York Times bestseller list for 47 weeks. On the Heath brothers' website, Switch is described, accurately, as "a compelling, story-driven narrative [that brings] together decades of counterintuitive research in psychology, sociology and other fields to shed new light on how we can effect transformative change."

Using the analogy of a rider on an elephant, the authors propose a three-part framework to bring about change - direct the rider (the rational mind), motivate the elephant (the emotional mind), and shape the path (the environment). They describe how, to elicit change, it's essential to articulate crystal clear instructions that enable the rider to direct the elephant, to make an emotional appeal that will give the elephant energy to move in the right direction, and to provide an environment conducive to change. Considering Reach Out and Read from this perspective, I am impressed that, despite predating the publication of Switch by 21 years, our model follows their framework!

First, let's look at directing the rider. With the aim of encouraging families to develop positive, responsive parenting, Reach Out and Read doctors promote reading aloud every day. In recent years, it has become clear that healthy early brain development is dependent on positive family interactions in which parents engage with their young children right from the start. And yet an instruction to "engage with your young children every day" is difficult to put into practice. A simple message to read aloud every day, given with details as to how best to do this at each developmental stage, is a great way of helping parents spend some time each day connecting with their infants and toddlers. Even when it seems strange to suggest that parents read aloud to a baby, it can be easier for many parents to cuddle a young child and let them hear the sound of their voice as they read aloud than to think of what to say.

switch - mother & childSecondly, motivating the elephant. The emotional instinct for all parents in wanting to do the best for their children is huge; they often just want to be shown how. Knowing that spending time with their children and connecting with them will help prepare their children for school and for all that follows, and having an easily manageable way to do this, parents are motivated to make change. As Rosa, one of our Reach Out and Read parents said "Reading to my son will make a difference in how he does in school. I want to do that for him."

Finally, shaping the path. Many of the families that Reach Out and Read serves do not have any books at home. By giving each child a new developmentally-appropriate book to take home with them at each of 10 medical checkups from infancy, we provide the tools necessary to implement the change. For those parents, whose first language is not English, we offer books in 12 different languages, and books can even be useful for parents who don't read - we encourage them to talk about the story that the pictures tell. We are also partnering with the Institute of Museum and Library Services to encourage partnerships between Reach Out and Read sites and their local libraries, to expand the selection of books available for families to read aloud.

It is encouraging to read a book that has received accolades for its proposal of a framework that is powerful in creating transformative change, and to see that the Reach Out and Read model has all of the characteristics required. This is substantiated by research showing that parents served by Reach Out and Read are up to four times more likely to read aloud to their children. By continuing to promote parental engagement through reading aloud, and expanding our program to reach more children, Reach Out and Read can bring about the change in parenting practice that will have a powerful impact on their children's, and our society's future. 

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Written by Nikki Shearman at 08:05

Closing the Achievement Gap Requires Interventions that Target Children from the Earliest Years

With the author's permission, this article is an adaptation of a letter to the editor of Pediatrics by Reach Out and Read Co-Founder Dr. Robert Needlman M.D., F.A.A.P. following the publication of the report Positive Parenting Practices, Health Disparities, and Developmental Progress

Reading aloud statistics

A new study published inPediatrics last month provides further evidence that economic disadvantage is associated with fewer stimulating early childhood experiences and increased risk of developmental delays. Working with data from 12,642 children 4 to 36 months of age, Shah and colleagues analyzed interactive parent practices, such as reading aloud, talking and playing, and showed that "less participation in interactive activities is associated with increased risk of development delay among those experiencing significant adversity."

This report confirms and builds on the message of the landmark Hart & Risley study, published 20 years ago that studied a total of 42 children intensely over 30 months, recording at intervals every word that was said to them, and every word they said in turn. These scientists found that by the age of four, children from lower-income families hear 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers.

That these two disparate approaches reached the same conclusion is reassuring. That the underlying reality has remained unchanged for 20 years, that is, the propagation of social and developmental disadvantage, is not.

What has changed is the response to the problem. Both studies conclude that the achievement gap starts in infancy, and is already established by the age of four. Closing the achievement gap, therefore, depends on interventions that target children from the earliest days. Shah and colleagues go further to suggest that pediatricians have a vital role to play in delivering programs that strengthen parenting practices for the very young. "The advantages are that the primary care setting is established, non-stigmatizing, accessible locally, and has the potential to disseminate parenting interventions."

Reading aloud 2There are now many programs, both local and national, that seek to influence early childhood development, and several that operate through the primary care setting. Of the latter, Reach Out and Read is a well-established and successful non-profit organization - implemented in every state, in more than 5,500 clinics, and in virtually every pediatric training program. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics, that recommends "pediatric providers promote early literacy development" references Reach Out and Read as an effective intervention to engage parents and prepare children to achieve their potential.

Reach Out and Read was developed some 26 years ago and uses a simple time-honored model in which medical providers give books to children at each of their well-child checkups and encourage their parents to read aloud to them. It is supported by a large body of published research showing that the children we serve are read to more often by their parents, have improved language skills and a greater love of reading. Reach Out and Read now serves over 4.5 million children annually, including one in five disadvantaged children. We still have a long way to go, and we plan to continue to grow and reach more families and children across the nation, but as we contemplate how far we have yet to go in our efforts to combat social disadvantage, it's important to keep in mind how far we have come.

The Importance of Encouraging Parents to Read Aloud to Their Young Children

There is a well documented and growing achievement gap between children growing up in the United States that starts in early childhood and persists through school and college into adulthood. It has become increasingly important to determine the factors that affect child development, both positively and negatively, so as to identify how we can give every child the opportunity to grow up into well-rounded adults. This is important for the future of our families, our communities and our nation.

Encouraging Parents to Read Aloud to Their Young Children

Advances in neuroscience technology over the last two decades have allowed us to chart human brain development. The evidence is still accumulating, but it is now well established that our brains develop most rapidly during the first few years of life. The brain has reached 95% of its full size by the age of six.1

Areas of the brain associated with specific skills develop sequentially - the sensory pathways develop first, followed by connections that result in language capability, followed by higher cognitive function. What is most significant is that maximal development for all functions occurs during the first five years of life.3

Child development studies have shown that the architecture of the early developing brain is influenced by a child's experience. Nurturing from a loving parent or caregiver stimulates the brain to develop the circuits that provide the foundation for emotional well-being, social competence and cognitive abilities. Conversely, adverse experiences prevent the brain from developing to its full capacity.

The best time to have an impact on children's achievement is during this critical window of early brain development, from birth through five years. And the best way of positively influencing early brain development is to strengthen the capacity of adults to nurture their children. Giving parents guidance about cuddling, talking to, and playing with their infants and toddlers will help them to support their child's development.

So, how do we reach parents of young children with this guidance?

This is where Reach Out and Read comes in! Our program is integrated into the pediatric healthcare system, so that we have repeated and unparalleled access to families with children from birth through five years at well-child checkups. Over 84% of children visit a pediatric healthcare provider during their first year.  By offering guidance about reading aloud to infants and toddlers, as a simple way of encouraging language-rich nurturing, our medical providers can help parents to give their children the best start in life.

1Lenroot, R.K. & Giedd, J.N Brain development in children and adolescents: Insights from anatomical magnetic resonance imaging. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 30 (2006) 718-729 


 

Written by Nikki Shearman at 09:04

Reach Out and Read is Collaborating with Save the Children to Support Early Childhood Literacy in Rural America

Reach Out and Read has recently embarked on an exciting joint initiative with Save the Children to support and foster children's education and wellbeing in some of the United States' most impoverished and isolated regions. Funded by a $4.2 million federal grant from the Department of Education's Innovative Approaches to Literacy Program, the Building Child-Centered Communities in Rural America project uses a collective approach to develop and improve literacy skills for children from birth through 10 years old. The two-year program will focus on 30 isolated communities in four states, South Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado and Arizona, where access to quality early learning opportunities is often the most difficult.

There is an ever-growing achievement gap in America that starts in early childhood. It is well established that children who are unable to read on grade-level by the fourth grade are unlikely to ever catch up, and in rural areas, where resources are few and far between, nearly half of school children fail to meet this benchmark. The best way to improve the chances for lifelong success is to reach children in the first five years of life, a critical time period when 90% of all brain development occurs. The interventions in early childhood can then be reinforced through school-age programs.

IAL grant

The Building Child-Centered Communities in Rural America project is grounded on the core premise that collaboration between organizations results in a collective impact that is essential for effecting lasting change. It will surround children in an integrated structure of home, school, and community resources, aligning a continuum of services from birth through 10 years old.

Reach Out and Read medical providers in the 30 communities participating in this project will reach over 16,000 children from birth through five yearsof age. They will give a new, developmentally-appropriate book to infants and toddlers at each well-child visit, along with advice to parents about the benefits of reading aloud to their children every day. Research has shown that parents who have been given this advice by their pediatrician or family physician read to their children more often, and their children's language scores are improved. This is an important intervention in communities where many children are not enrolled in early education programs.

To reinforce this message, every family participating in Save the Children's home visitation program, Early Steps to School Success, will receive high-quality, age-appropriate children's books to ensure that each family is able to build their own library and help their children develop a love of reading.

 

Save the Children already provides additional support for these children as they reach school through donations of $4,000 to $6,000 worth of books for school-age programming. This project will allow for the additional provision of:

  • $10,000 worth of books, tablets and e-books for each school
  • Afterschool literacy, physical activity and nutrition programs
  • Parent-child events
  • Training and technical assistance.

As the final piece in this multi-faceted project, a Community Literacy Manager will be hired locally to increase community collaboration in this far-reaching project, and to build local capacity and leadership for deeper impact and sustainability.

Supporting early childhood literacy education through the interacting approaches supported by this grant will have far-reaching outcomes:

  • Communities that have the capacity to support early child literacy
  • Families that are connected to schools, libraries and community organizations
  • Parents and caregivers that have the knowledge and skills to support their children's development
  • Children who enter school with the skills for success.

It feels good to work together!

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Written by Reach Out and Read - Communications at 10:00

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