Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has made early childhood education an imperative. His goal is to increase the number of students in Georgia able to read at grade level by the completion of the third grade.
While a fair amount of attention is being paid to what schools can do from Kindergarten through third grade to improve reading skills, some of the most interesting and potentially effective of Georgia’s initiatives in this area focus on a child’s life outside the classroom – indeed before they ever enter one.
Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal is a teacher by training. She is launching the “Read Across Georgia” initiative, which promotes and supports adults reading with children – even as early as when they are first born. Her goal is to visit every school district in the state.
Governor Deal has also established the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS), a nonprofit group that promote and support early learning and healthy development programs for children up to five years old. Our daughter Jackie volunteers as the group’s treasurer.
A growing body of research shows that an enormous amount of a child’s brain development is influenced by their experiences as infants. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard (CDCH), 700 to 1,000 new neural connections form every second during the first years of life.
So when you see a parent, caregiver or older sibling talk, laugh, play or interact with an infant or toddler, this allows the baby’s brain to develop properly. Reading to young children is a great way to set them up for future success in school and in life.
Of course, the opposite is also true. Early life experiences that cause the infant “toxic stress” – what the CDCH calls physical or emotional abuse, persistent neglect, or exposure to violence, and other forms of mental and physical harm – can cause long term damage. This includes disruptions to brain development, an increased risk for stress related disease, cognitive impairment, as well as other health problems such as heart and lung disease and high blood pressure, well into adulthood.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “At least one in four children have experienced child neglect or abuse (including physical, emotional, and sexual) at some point in their lives, and one in seven children experienced abuse or neglect in the last year.” With 74 million children in the United States, that equates to 10.5 million who were abused or neglected last year.
But those children are not lost causes. CDCH researchers have found that children with “at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult have a better chance of learning how to deal with stress.” This is why Big Brother, Big Sister and other mentor programs are so important and successful.
Governor and First Lady Deal deserve credit for making early childhood education a priority, and for finding creative ways to encourage healthy learning habits outside the classroom. Callista is especially grateful to Sandra Deal, for reading Ellis the Elephant history books to young people throughout Georgia.
Of course, we can do a lot more in our daily lives to help prepare children to succeed in school and life – and do so without the assistance of government programs or nonprofit groups.
To start off, to be good mentors for children, we must learn to manage our own stress. Things like exercise, mental organization, and practicing self-discipline can “improve the abilities of children and adults to cope with, adapt to, and even prevent adversity in their lives. Adults who strengthen these skills in themselves can better model healthy behaviors for their children, thereby improving the resilience of the next generation,” according to the CDCH.
So the next time you are spending time with a grandchild or the parents of a young child remember: If we work hard to interact with children in a positive way – ours or others – and work to educate parents and caregivers on the importance of the first years of children’s lives, we can start a cycle to profoundly improve the lives of millions of Americans.
Newt Gingrich was a Republican Speaker of the House.