There is nothing quite so magical as watching toddlers explore their world.
There are times when it almost seems that we can hear their brains whirring as they learn new things, they investigate their environment, and they seek to understand the world around them.
And yet, as magical as this is, one thing is certain: there are no magic answers to making it happen. There is only the magic of doing an awful lot of things right – as parents, as caregivers, as educators, and as a community.
It is then that we see the magic that comes in creating children whose cognitive development prepares them for what lies ahead in their lives. That’s why it is crucial that however we contribute to a child’s upbringing, we should begin with a seminal fact: there is no single button to push that ensures the healthy development of a child and there is no panacea that unlocks a bright future for every child. Rather, there is only the dedicated work every day of being a loving, nurturing parent and city.
We’ve been thinking about this lately because early childhood development seems to be on everyone’s radar at the local, state, and federal levels. As sometimes happens, rhetoric outruns reality and magical thinking overruns the research on early childhood development, so as you hear more, remember, it takes a latticework of things to develop children to their fullest.
For example, Pre-K matters. The more Memphis children who attend, the better. It is indisputable that what is needed in our community is not a high-performing K-12 educational system, but a Pre-K-12 educational system. Now, children are five and six years old when they enter the classroom, but by then, their brains have grown to 80 percent of their adult sizes and events, experiences, and environment have already produced vital learning for them – both positive and negative.
In the past, Pre-K has been seen as an educational luxury. Fortunately, it is more and more being seen as a necessity if we want to close the achievement gap and give every child a fair start in life. And yet, it is unrealistic to expect that our schools and our teachers should bear the brunt of the responsibility for the development of our children.
Often, the lessons of the classroom fade in the harsh realities of toxic stress in the family, lack of parental involvement, overly harsh discipline, neglect, and abuse. We frequently say that parents are a child’s first teacher and homes are his first classroom. We should add, parents are a child’s most important teacher and home is the most important classroom.
It is simple math. A child spends three times as many hours away from the classroom as in it, and the lessons that are taking place in those non-school hours are every bit as important as those inside a school. The lessons that a child learns at home can negate – or strengthen – all that she’s learning in a positive school environment.
More to the point, it is the months from conception to the child’s third birthday that are pivotal to optimal brain development, and that’s before he even enters pre-K. It’s as if there is a pre-pre-K and the only teachers are parents and caregivers, and it comes at a time when the brain development of a child at the end of these 45 months is nothing short of astounding – but only if the parents and caregivers do their jobs well.
We remember a friend who had a baby and said that as she was being discharged from the hospital, she was thinking, “Surely, they’re not going to let me have that baby to take with me.” She was overwhelmed by the importance that she would play in that newborn’s life and by the understanding that she would in large measure be responsible for how her new daughter turned out. It’s the kind of seriousness that every parent needs if Pre-K and proven interventions are to have their best opportunities for success.
Our youngest children experience the world through relationships that wrap them like a blanket – intellectually, socially, emotionally, physically, behaviorally, and morally. It is the quality and stability of these relationships that lay the foundation for the development that will come later. When it is done well, it is seen in self-confidence, ability to avoid unnecessary conflict and control emotions, and knowing the difference between right and wrong.
Put simply, relationships are the threads that bind together children’s lives, and it is why when we say there is no substitute for healthy brain development, we also say quickly, there is no substitute for caring adults in every child’s life.