Mind & Body

Nourishing the brains of children and parents

New strategies underway to help Rhode Islanders get ready to learn

A child who is a participant in the Ready To Learn Providence, or R2LP program, a program of the Providence Plan, as shown on a post on the R2LP's website.

By Peter Simon
Posted 5/26/13
Nourishing the brain of young children and helping parents and early education teachers learn how to better engage with young children is a key component in building a solid foundation for the likelihood of the emotional and economic success of children throughout their life. Rhode Island needs to invest more resources in high quality early education. To do so is a question of political will.
Will the R.I. General Assembly step up to the plate and invest in creating more slots for Early Head Start program – where only 6 percent of the estimated eligible population received Early Head Start Services as of October 2013? In a world where Congress funds the defense contractors such as Electric Boat, with a world view that "there are nuclear attack submarines, and there are targets," can room be found for larger investment in early childhood education and further expansion of R2LP’s statewide program? What kinds of potential collaborative research efforts can be undertaken by the Swearing Center’s TRILab at Brown University to capture the neuroscience findings at the community level and translate them into future programmatic improvements?
For all the mapping taking place in Rhode Island – from the R.I. Alliance for Healthy Homes to the Providence Plan – to translate data into visual graphics, what kinds of maps do that for early childhood education, early Head Start, licensed capacity of Early Learning Programs, Early Learning Programs participating in BrightStars, the statewide R2LP expansion, Incredible Years, and Mind in the Making? What a great visual mapping tool would be created.

PROVIDENCE – Dr. Haim Ginott’s best-seller, “Between Parent and Child,” first published in 1965, served as a watershed book in helping parents learn how to converse with children.

My first awareness of Ginott came at an early age, when during my before-school ritual, I would sit with my Mom and my sister at the breakfast table and watch NBC’s Today Show, anchored by Dave Garroway. The only time my mother ever told us to “shut up” was when Garroway had Ginott on as a guest.

A child psychologist, Ginott talked about how parents could better communicate with their young children. I believe that my Mom knew a “smarty” when she heard one.

This was in the 1950s, in the early days of modern brain science, before the Human Genome project, before dynamic MRI studies, and before the science of “multiple intelligences.”

Even then, there was evidence that social and emotional competencies, things not measured by IQ tests, were more predictive of success in life than other kinds of intelligence [as detailed in George Valliant’s “Adaptation to Life”].

Many years later, before leaving my pediatrics practice to join the R.I. Department of Health, I routinely suggested to parents, when their children were early in the second year of life, that reading Ginott’s “Between Parent and Child” would not only save them lots of energy and drama, but make child-rearing fun. I have often wondered if it worked.

Getting Rhode Island ready to learn
Today in Rhode Island, there is a strong movement to train parents and childcare providers about how to nurture the early brain development of their children.

Funding for these efforts come from several federal sources, including “Race to the Top Early Learning funds,” innovation awards from the federal Department of Education, and the R.I. Department of Health’s Maternal and Child Health block grants. These are being used to offer parents two kinds of training curricula that will help them prepare their children for school and life in general.

Ready to Learn Providence, or R2LP, a program of the Providence Plan, now led by Leslie Gell, has been in the business of training childcare professionals in Providence to improve early care and education since receiving an Early Learning Opportunity Grant in 2003.

More than 800 Spanish-speaking early childhood professionals have been trained so far. With the most recent funding, R2LP is able to offer two different training curricula. Moreover, for the first time, they are working statewide to train parents and early childhood professionals about brain development and the core competencies of an emotionally and socially healthy person.

Building upon the ongoing relationships developed with family day care professionals, demand for these new trainings was built in. The first group of 25 Early Learning professionals were recruited after an invitation by email when the program was launched. Twenty-one completed the 14 sessions required by the program’s standards.

“Mind in the Making,” the newer of the two training packages, has been the mainstay of R2LP’s training effort. Developed by the Family and Work Institute, it makes the brain science understandable to a lay audience. R2LP has provided a 14-week training targeting family childcare workers and other early childhood professionals in multiple languages. Hundreds of adults are now trained.

“Incredible Years,” a much older and more researched curriculum, has been the focus of parent training sponsored by the Department of Health with funds from SAMSA under the program called “Launch” focused on Providence’s preschool population. “Incredible Years” gets more into training parents to use specific activities to stimulate and nurture the building of important cognitive and emotional brain functions.

R2LP’s statewide expansion is funded by the R.I. Department of Health’s Comprehensive Health Equity and Wellness (CHEW) grant dollars, the same program investing in Sankofa in West End I wrote about in a previous edition of ConvergenceRI. [See link to story below.]

Tanya Quezada, director of Family and Community Engagement at R2LP, is leading the recruitment to expand “Incredible Years” training opportunities in Pawtucket and Central Falls. The work is being done in collaboration with the Central Falls public schools, churches and community-based organizations. Courses are being offered in Spanish, Haitian Creole, and English at this time. Another CHEW grantee, the Providence Center, is also offering “Incredible Years” workshops in Spanish and English.

Gell and Quezada both agreed that the strategy now in place will take time to show results and be measured in outcomes in Rhode Island’s urban schools. Closing the disparities between urban poor children and their peers in suburban schools might be the most important approach to improving school performance and reducing disparities in population health. We should have a way to measure the impact of these investments, because in the fall of 2014, a new standardized assessment will be piloted in every school district in Rhode Island that will assess the critical skills needed for learning upon kindergarten enrollment.

Moving forward
In a world where economic progress is often measured in quarterly assessments of income, revenue and shareholder returns, the progress in reducing the gap in educational achievement is a longer-term process, where the results may take a decade to emerge – but have a profound impact on the bottom line of our state’s economic well-being.

It seems simplistic to say, but a healthier community translates into a healthier economy, and investments in improving the educational potential of Rhode Island’s children requires more than performing well on standardized tests. It begins with the conversation and nurturing that occurs between parents and children at an early age.

“Investing in high-quality early education is one of the most valuable commitments we can make to Rhode Island’s children and families,” said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count. “Evidence-based early learning opportunities can provide a solid foundation for learning and healthy development, help to close achievement gaps, and impact the likelihood of success for children throughout their life.”

Nobel Prize-winning labor economist James Joseph Heckman has shown that in order for a society to have a sustainable economy, investments in early childhood are the most critical and produce the greatest return on investment. Rhode Island has had leadership over the years that understood this. Former R.I. Human Services Director, Christine Ferguson, and her colleague, Patricia Nolan, former director of the R.I. Department of Health, made huge investments in early childhood.

Rhode Island knows what to do. A path to sustainability is mostly a question of political will.

Dr. Peter Simon is the former medical director of the Division of Community, Family Health, and Equity at the R.I. Department of Health. He was recognized as a national Public Health Hero in 2012, and he received a 2013 Community Hero Award from the Childhood Lead Action Project.

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