Government agencies, schools, and business groups are devoting extensive resources to prepare Kentucky’s students to enter the workforce of today and the future.
But one Lexington physician thinks that waiting until students are in high school or college is missing a huge opportunity.
“I would argue workforce development begins in utero,” says Dr. Donna Grigsby, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Kentucky. “We really should be thinking about how to make our children as successful as possible by the time they get to school, so that our workforce, when they become adults, is going to be even stronger.”
Grigsby appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss why a child’s earliest experiences are crucial to a healthy and productive adulthood, and what parents can do to promote good brain development in their babies.
The Importance of Stimulating Environments
From conception through the first three years of life, the human brain develops in dramatic ways, according to Grigsby. It’s absorbing information from all five senses and building neuropathways that are crucial to cognitive function.
But that doesn’t just happen on its own. Grigsby says a key ingredient for healthy brain development is engagement with the child. That means talking, reading, singing, and playing with children to create a stimulating environment for their young brains. Grigsby contends that these kinds of interactions should be considered part of an infant’s basic care, along with feeding and diapering.
“Talk to [your baby] about everything you’re doing,” she says. “Every time you talk to a child and you respond to their attempts to communicate, that just reinforces those language pathways in the brain.”
Children raised in families who talk with them more tend to develop a larger vocabulary and higher IQ, says Grigsby. In fact, research indicates that kids in talkative, engaging environments may be exposed to 30 million more words than children who don’t have positive adult interactions.
In addition to the cognitive benefits, those exchanges are also critical to emotional development.
“It’s so important for children to have that loving, nurturing relationship with their primary caregivers,” Grisby says. “That sets the basis for every trusting relationship in their life.”
Childhood Experiences Lead to Adult Behaviors
What if children don’t experience a positive, stimulating environment? Grigsby says they may have difficulty expressing their emotions in verbal ways, and they may find it hard to discern emotions in other people. She also says differences in language development can show up as early as 9 months of age.
And that can have a range of life-long impacts. Grigsby says those children may struggle from their very first days of Head Start or kindergarten. That can make school a negative experience for a child who is unable to keep up with his or her peers. Other factors in a child’s home environment, like a divorce, incarceration of a parent, or poverty and food insecurity, can also distract them from their schooling.
“They’re not going to be focused on experiencing what’s going on around them and it makes it more difficult them for learn,” says Grigsby.
These adverse childhood experiences also set the stage for later medical problems.
“Children who have cognitive or emotional or behavioral deficits from early on, they’re much more likely to adopt high-risk health behaviors,” says Grigsby.
They’re more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol or drugs, and suffer from depression. As they grow older, poor health and low academic achievement can impact employability and productivity, and can lead to illegal activity, incarceration, and even premature death.
Reading Really Is Fundamental
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“The earlier we can identify those [cognitive and emotional] delays, the more likely we are to make those delays go away,’ says Grigsby.
She says the state has programs to assess infants and children and provide them with additional support services as needed. The state and schools can devote resources to finding alternative ways to educate children who don’t learn by traditional methods. Grigsby also says parents, family members, and other caregivers can commit themselves to provide a nurturing environment with positive stimulations that will promote healthy brain development and foster a love of learning in the child.
And that can start by playing with and reading to your newborn every day.
“Playing gives them an opportunity to interact with objects and to interact with other people,” Grigsby says. “It gives them the opportunity to engage all of their senses, which we know they need to be able to learn.”
To ensure that all newborns have access to books, pediatricians across Kentucky are part of the Reach Out and Read early childhood literacy program. They give books to children and families from the infant’s first office visit until the child reaches five years of age. Grigsby says the program helps families build a library of age-appropriate books and it models good reading behaviors for parents.
Even if the parent isn’t a good reader, Grigsby says he or she can still sit with the child and point out pictures, colors, and individual words in the books and make up their own stories about what the child is seeing. If a child has a favorite book, it’s okay to read it to them as much as they want.
“The good news is that it really helps you’re child’s brain development to have repetition,” says Grigsby. “So reading ‘Goodnight Moon’ 500 times is really good for their brain, and the bad news is you have to read ‘Goodnight Moon’ 500 times.”
Grigsby also says its normal for a child to want to chew or suck on their favorite book.
“They need to taste it, they need to see it, they need to hear it, they need to smell it,” she says. “They need to have all of those senses engaged for their brain to be stimulated maximally.”