If you were going to pick the most important time in a child’s life to build a foundation for academic and reading success, when would it be? If you were thinking elementary school or even PreK, you’d be close, but the answer is much sooner.
The time from birth to 3 years old is the most critical period for healthy brain development and early academic experiences. Believe it or not, school readiness begins in the womb!
This early stretch — from prenatal months to age 3 — goes the furthest to helping our littles be school-ready. It’s when a child develops 85 percent of his or her core brain structure. Thanks to work and research done by the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, we’re excited to share three basic areas — good health, positive early learning experiences and strong family foundations — that you can focus on to help your babies and toddlers succeed.
1.) Good Health
It’s easier to learn when we’re healthy. (Most of us weathering cold and flu season can sympathize!) That’s true whether we’re fighting sicknesses or facing slightly different obstacles as we navigate developmental, mental health or learning challenges.
To ensure good health from the very beginning, it’s important to take advantage of developmental screenings that usually happen at well-child visits with pediatricians. Often called an Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment screening (or EPSDT screening), this is a quick, cost-effective way to be sure your darlings are hitting important growth and development milestones and addressing any vision, hearing, fine motor skills or other issues early on.
Mental Health & Social-Emotional Learning
Health isn’t just limited to physical well-being; even young children who haven’t experienced trauma should have access to mental health screenings in their early years so that parents and caregivers can address any issues from the very beginning. All children should also be nurtured in ways that support social-emotional learning, such as through positive discipline.
Early childhood is an especially important time to protect our babies and toddlers from physical or emotional abuse and neglect. Adverse childhood experience in children’s earliest years tend to make them more likely to have more severe emotional, behavioral and academic difficulties as they grow — especially on the ability to learn language and early reading skills. While we all do everything we can to keep our children safe, it’s incredibly important to seek help if we suspect or discover issues.
2.) Positive Early Learning Experiences
Do you remember a very positive or a very negative learning experience from your life? If you do, chances are you can immediately think of how it made you feel in the moment … and how it’s impacted your attitude what you were learning about for a long time since then. When we know that it’s not just the instances we remember but those from the very beginning that shape us, that makes our babies’ and toddlers’ learning experiences even more important!
There is a strong connection between our kiddos’ vocabulary at age 3 and their reading level in third grade - isn’t that amazing? As parents and caregivers, we play a key role in helping our little ones develop this kind of early literacy. Fortunately, the way to do it is pretty fun! Preschoolers whose parents regularly read to them, tell stories, sing songs and take part in other literacy activities become better readers and do better in school later on.
Access to Books
Next to talking and singing, there aren’t many things as important as just having age-appropriate books around your home. Sharing books with kids at an early age leads to improved literacy their whole lives. In fact, reading together for just 15 minutes a day outside of school can put kids in contact with more than a million words of text in a year.
Quality Early Childhood Education
Early childhood education makes a big impact on children’s safety and shapes their sense of trust in adults, kids’ physical and emotional well-being, impacts long-term health and, if our families need or choose to stay on the job, effects our ability to work.
3.) Strong Families
We are all doing the best that we can, but are there any special areas we can focus on that will make our families’ foundations stronger sooner than others? Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families has found that certain key things make a huge difference.
Seeing a doctor from the moment you or your partner find out that you’re pregnant is crucial for healthy babies and their mothers. Seeing your doctor during your pregnancy and following up with care for mom for two months after the baby is born makes for a healthier life long-term. Ongoing care for baby is always important — as we talked about earlier! — but it’s critical for premature infants since they are at higher risk for for serious health problems.
Family Time - From the Beginning
If at all possible, after your baby is born, take time with your family to recover from childbirth, take care of your new child and bond with your baby before going back to work. Research shows that families who can do this go to more doctor’s appointments, children get sick less often and recover faster, and mothers are more likely to breastfeed.
When time off isn’t an option due to job or financial issues, be sure to know your rights and consider options like short-term disability leave, savings plans, potential part-time work, negotiating with your company (there’s no harm in asking!), saving the paid-time-off that is available to you, investigating local resources, calling on your personal networks, looking into your medical benefits and remembering your strength. If you have no choice but to return to work sooner than you’d like, know that many parents have been in the same situation. You’re doing all that you can in the midst of a taxing situation, and we’re impressed by your strength!
Look for the Helpers
When you’re able to, consider inviting people who can support you into your family’s life — whether that’s taking advantage of Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood home visits if you qualify or accepting help and visits from your personal network of family and friends. When qualified, positive assistance comes to you, research shows that this vital support for families of infants and toddlers reinforces good parenting habits and helps fill in the gaps when you need it.
Want to keep learning about these ideas and find out what steps you can take to encourage policymakers to make these options better and stronger for families of all make-ups and income levels? Read the full report from the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading here.