In the past few years, California has overcome one of the biggest public health deficits—improving children’s learning abilities by focusing on brain development in the first three years of life.
We have taught thousands of parents about the importance of exercising a baby’s brain, starting on day one.
But we still have gaps to fill in reaching all parents in California with this vital public health knowledge. As one of the most diverse states in the country, raising awareness of critical health issues—such as early brain development—means reaching households where English is not the primary language, considering the various cultural backgrounds of foreign-born parents, and recognizing the precious little time some parents get to be home because of long work hours.
The science is clear that the first three years of a child’s life are important on multiple levels. When adults interact directly with babies—such as by talking, reading and singing to them—those children have larger vocabularies at age three, better learning levels as they enter kindergarten, and a much higher likelihood of being able to read well and do well as students in both grade school and high school regardless of income levels, cultural differences or race. Brains exercised in the home do significantly better in all the other education settings of a child’s life, because of the neuron connections that were built and reinforced in those first key years.
Getting this information into the hands of parents is why First 5 California launched its “Talk. Read. Sing.” campaign—to close the awareness gap among parents. The campaign is a research-based social marketing program combined with easy to understand tips and activities, and it has made a positive difference in California. A 2019 study indicated that 90 percent of California parents now talk, read or sing to their young children at least three times a week and about 87 percent of parents with children from birth to age five recognize the messages of the multi-lingual marketing and advertising campaign.
However, the same study showed parents who are foreign-born or who speak Spanish at home are less likely to read or sing to their young children than both their U.S.-born counterparts and those who do not speak Spanish at home. Perhaps accounting for at least some of this discrepancy is the fact that many of these families have both parents working long hours or two jobs in order to provide for their children, the research indicates. The study recognized that addressing the development of dual-language learners—now a majority of California’s young children, is a “key priority for promoting educational success.”
Closing this information gap among our state’s many diverse cultures includes eliminating stigmas, reaching parents where they live, showing compassion and understanding, getting books in the hands of parents, and recognizing and improving the general hierarchy of needs for families when it comes to gaining information about health.
For example, recent immigrants and other first-generation parents in the U.S. often have come from countries with limited educational resources or learning experiences that are different from those in the U.S. Sometimes these parents may not feel comfortable reading to their babies because they may have a limited capacity to read. Instead, we suggest that these parents tell stories from their own childhood, make up stories based on pictures in a book, or sing traditional songs from their homeland. All of these options stimulate a child’s brain in those critical first three years.
In an effort to spread this knowledge, a new chapter in our campaign will include “how-to” videos in Spanish that share both the importance of early brain development and the various activities a parent can perform with their young children.
It’s in California—and the United States’—best interest to be inclusive with this public health education effort. Early education can help the state close its achievement gap because it equips our children with the tools to succeed at a very early and critical stage.
While we are encouraged by continued strides to fund and expand early education programs and other ongoing efforts to improve public education in higher grades, we must continue to provide new parents with the tools to start their newborns on a productive and enriching path. Children from every race, ethnicity, culture and economic level deserve to have the asset of early brain stimulation.
George Halvorson is the First 5 California Commission Chair.