Julie Sanford can tell from the very first day of school where her Chandler kindergartners came from. And, in many cases, she can tell where they’re going.
Which ones had preschool and which ones didn’t. Which ones were read to and which ones weren’t. Who’s getting enough sleep and a decent breakfast. Who’s fed on a steady diet of cartoons and Nintendo.
Who will thrive, who will catch up and who will continue to struggle.
“There are some who have done nothing but hang out with a 2-year-old sibling watching TV,” Sanford said. “They come here and they have no idea what to do. They are absolutely shellshocked.”
Like thousands of children all over the East Valley, the students at Humphrey Elementary School each bring something different into the classroom. They come from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, economic realities and family types and each represents a new challenge for parents, care givers and teachers.
One child cannot count to 10. Another is doing double-digit addition. Three children came in speaking only Spanish. Two or three others are still painfully unsure of themselves.
But there is one thing they all have in common. They were all born to learn.
And regardless of how they came to kindergarten, they will be expected to take standardized tests and to one day graduate from high school. Some will do well, and others will do their part to keep Arizona’s dropout rate the highest in the nation.
For the next year, the Tribune will explore the growth and development of the East Valley’s youngest children, from prenatal care until the day they enter kindergarten, to understand how families, communities and policy-makers help some kids become ready to succeed when they enter school, and how they miserably fail others.
“I don’t see a socioeconomic difference in how much people love their children,” said Teri Reyburn-Orne, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Desert Samaritan Medical Center. “But some young moms may not see the consequences of their actions.”
Or inactions. Tribune stories will explain research on early brain development and nutrition, mental health and discipline at various stages of development.
PRENATAL TO 8 MONTHS
Take care of yourself and your baby when you are pregnant. Eat a healthy diet, refrain from smoking or using drugs or alcohol, get plenty of exercise and keep regular appointments with your doctor.
Look for your baby’s cues, and respond to them. Babies cry to tell you they need you. By responding, you make them feel secure and loved. Research shows babies who are comforted when they cry tend to cry less and sleep more at night. And when your baby smiles, smile back.
Hug, kiss, snuggle, talk, play, sing and read. Touching babies helps their brain grow and makes them feel safe. Talking to them will help them learn to speak. A University of Kansas study showed that the number of words children hear in their first year can boost their IQ.
The story begins well before the baby is born, in the choices a mother makes about diet, drugs and alcohol, the education and health care she receives, and the home environment in which the child will live. Economics plays a huge role, but so does a two-parent family, education and, above all, the bond formed between mother and child.
“The child is comforted, most of the time, only by you,” said Vicky Thrasher, a Chandler mother of three children, ages 3, 5 and 7.
But even Thrasher, who felt immediately bonded to her children, remembers how uncomfortable it was to sing to her first newborn. Now, she belts it out.
The bonding doesn’t have to be with the mother, but it must happen with someone.
“I think the most critical message that we get out is, that a child has to be bonded to somebody,” said Jill Stamm, director of the New Directions Institute for Infant Brain Development and a professor at Arizona State University. “I really believe that it’s as simple as face time.”
Without that bonding, Stamm and others say, children are at risk of developing a wide array of physical, mental and behavioral problems that can affect them for the rest of their lives. And bonding doesn’t always come naturally.
It’s true that children who start school behind their classmates can greatly benefit from taxpayer-supported special-education classes, individual attention from classroom teachers and other interventions.
But national studies have shown that others start school too far behind, with too many societal problems working against them. Their lack of early school success increases their chances of getting arrested, becoming a teenage parent and dropping out of school.
“The risk for them is so exponential that by the time they hit 5 or 6, we do not know how to turn that around,” said Michael Kelley, chairman of the Early Education Department at Arizona State University West and a consultant to East Valley school districts. “We have set them up for failure.”
Studies also have tracked children at risk of failure who were enrolled in quality infant, toddler and preschool programs. Over the years, they scored higher than their peers on tests, were less likely to need special education, less likely to be held back in school, more likely to graduate and less likely to get in trouble with the law.
More than ever, East Valley adults have an economic stake in raising a prepared and productive work force.
Arizona’s population is booming, but its children represent a shrinking percentage of the population. And in the new economy, dropping out of high school is a ticket to a lifetime of minimum-wage jobs - not exactly the backbone of a strong economy.
8 TO 18 MONTHS
Set limits on your little explorer. As children begin to crawl and walk, they will try different things and look for your reaction. This is the time to set limits with clear messages and simple words in a slow, quiet voice. When possible, tell children what you want them to do rather than what not to do.
Distraction works wonders. Comfort children when they are upset. Using simple words, tell them you understand that they want it and explain why they can’t have it. Turning their attention to something else often helps them calm down and forget about what they wanted.
Keep touching, talking and reading. You are your children’s first and best teacher, and talking to them is one of the most important things you can do for them. Chat about everyday things. Repeat words and point to things as you say the word. As they explore their world, they will want reassurance that you’re still there keeping an eye on them. They love bright, colorful picture books, cloth books and board books.
Growing the brain
From the very beginning, babies’ needs are pretty much the same and remarkably simple.
The touching, talking, singing, reading, kissing and hugging they consistently receive from their mother, father or primary care giver helps their brains make important connections to grow strong and smart. It enables them to trust and lays the foundation for learning as they grow.
But just as babies’ brains develop best with love and attention, research on early brain development has shown that brain growth is inhibited when babies and young children are denied bonding experiences, deprived of consistent health care and proper nutrition, or exposed to trauma, stress or violence in the home.
The research seems to put an end to the age-old question: Nature or nurture?
“They are both equally important. The one can change the other,” said Dr. Raun Melmed, a development pediatrician in Scottsdale. “If you do nurturing, you can change the nature.”
That doesn’t mean all is lost after the child turns 5, or that Mozart CDs and Suzuki violin lessons are ways to reclaim it. Outings to the park, pat-a-cake and peekaboo are far more important to a child’s development than electronic toys, classical music or flashcards, research shows.
“The truth is that human development is a lifelong activity,” said Melmed, who sees children with a range of developmental and behavioral problems. “Sure, it’s important the first five years. But it’s not the end of the line.”
But many parents are isolated. Separated from family members, confused by mixed messages from the media and marketers, and starved for information from their harried HMO pediatricians. And on top of everything else, they’ve got a cranky, colicky baby who won’t stop crying.
Melmed delights in the look on a mother’s face when she sees brain scans showing the effect her voice, her singing, her attention is having on her child. It is a feeling of empowerment, a critical step in teaching the parent that she makes all the difference in her child’s life.
The mother’s voice causes neural circuits to light up in her baby’s brain, which at birth contains about 100 billion mostly unconnected nerve cells. The circuits that are turned on will strengthen and make connections called synapses. Those that are rarely fired up will drop away, a natural “pruning” process that streamlines neural processing and makes the remaining circuits work more efficiently.
“Parents feel untrained . . . even depressed about their ability to be as effective as they’d like to be,” Melmed said. “It doesn’t come naturally and there are techniques that can be taught. And there’s no shame in doing that.”
Teaching parents how to be better parents goes on all over the East Valley, in
classes at Mesa’s Family Resource Center, at schools in every district, at hospitals, doctors offices, community centers and nonprofit agencies.
But if they work outside the home, the people who are caring for their children aren’t necessarily trained to do so, and are paid on average less than garbage collectors and telemarketers.
Six out of 10 children younger than 5 spend all or part of their day in the care of someone other than their parents.
Child care workers in Arizona are not required to have any training or education beyond a high school equivalency diploma. They are paid on average, about $6.50 an hour.
18 MONTHS TO 3 YEARS
Help your toddlers understand their feelings. It’s important to talk with your toddlers when they are upset, so you know why and can help them identify what they’re feeling. This teaches them to know the difference between sad, mad, frustrated and happy and to deal with their emotions as they grow.
Temper tantrums may be inevitable, but some can be avoided if you give them some warning about what’s coming up, such as, “We will go brush your teeth after we read this book.”
Cuddling helps ease stressful times. Toddlers get stressed out just like adults. Positive comments and warm hugs help them relax and feel safe.
Encourage them to make choices. Ask them for ideas and listen when they talk. Let them pick which games to play and what they want to do, as long as it’s not destructive. Set aside time to play together every day. Make a special time for reading. Although it can get annoying, repetition is how toddlers learn best.
3 AND 4 YEARS
Establish routines and rituals . Predictability helps them to know what’s expected of them. They are reassured and comforted by daily routines and rituals that are pleasurable, such as brushing teeth and choosing a book before bed.
Don’t expect perfection from yourself or your child. Young children are normally impulsive and are not always able to control themselves. Use consistent, nonviolent approaches to discipline, explaining the reasons for the rule and the consequences for breaking it. Help them understand how their actions affect others and direct your comments toward their behavior, not them.
Watch television selectively. Resist the temptation to use TV as a babysitter.
Watch television with your child whenever possible and talk about what you see. Studies show that children who excel at school have families who limit how much and what type of TV they watch. Saturday morning cartoons show 20 to 25 violent acts an hour and children younger than 8 generally cannot discriminate between fantasy and reality.
State spending low
In the coming months, the Tribune also will examine some of the policy and funding issues surrounding child care, explore the influence of family culture on child rearing and look at who should be caring for kids in a post-Ozzie and Harriet world.
States typically have paid for only the poorest children to have health, social and early education services. Arizona spends about $10 million to support preschool programs for about 3,600 low-income 4-year-olds through the state Department of Education’s Early Childhood Block Grant.
The federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start programs enroll another 1,360 East Valley children from birth to age 5 who live below the federal poverty level, which is $17,650 a year for a family of four.
Together, the programs serve an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of the state’s poorest children.
Child care is regulated by three state agencies: the Department of Economic Security administers the subsidy program and licensing for those who participate in a federal nutrition program; the Department of Health Services has primary licensing authority; and the Department of Education administers the Early Childhood Block Grant.
“It’s truly a mishmash,” said Rep. Deb Gullett, R-Phoenix. “It’s just so fragmented that it’s hard to know where we are in order to get to the next level. And we know we need to get to the next level because of the dropout rate.”
Gullett has introduced a bill to create the Arizona Board on School Readiness, an 11-member commission that would recommend a multi-year plan to coordinate and improve the state’s early care and education programs, ultimately guiding state policy on the development of infants, toddlers and preschool children.
“It’s such a critical time in kids’ lives, and it’s shameful that we don’t have an entity in the state responsible for making sure parents are getting the best child care that they can for six out of 10 kids who are in child care,” Gullett said.
The bill has bipartisan support, backing from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jaime Molera and no money attached to it. But opposition could surface from conservative lawmakers and others who oppose government interference in what has traditionally been the family’s role.
While Arizona ponders a school-readiness board, states such as California, Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina and Massachusetts have already promised preschool to any low-income child that wants it. In Georgia, it is offered free of charge to all 4-year-olds regardless of income.
FOR ALL AGES
Protect your child’s brain. Violence at home, stress, parental depression, abuse or neglect can harm children’s brains, making it harder for them to learn and make friends as they get older. Young children need good nutrition, adequate sleep and regular health care to grow and develop, and a lack of these things can hurt the growth of their brains.
Find quality child care. Children can thrive in child care, as long as it is provided in a safe place by people who care about them and give them lots of attention. Finding good quality child care is a job, but it can make a world of difference to your child.
Take time for yourself. Your health and happiness are important to your child’s well-being. Ask for help from family members, neighbors, friends, your church or community groups. Take time out for some exercise, a nap or a bubble bath.
The Tribune will show readers preschool programs that work.
They are nationally accredited, affordable and wholly enriching the children who attend them. In some cases, they are providing scholarships to families who otherwise could not afford them.
And the parents are passionate about them.
Vicky Thrasher’s three children have all gone to preschool at the ASU College of Education, where the Chandler mother recently got her bachelor’s degree. Three-year-old Megan is there on scholarship this semester. It’s a 30-minute commute one way.
“The (teachers) have a lot of respect for the child’s feelings, thoughts and expressions. They write down what the kids say and paste it on the wall,” Thrasher said.
Audree Miller’s twin daughters got scholarships to the First Presbyterian Preschool on North Mesa Drive, an early learning program sponsored by the Mesa Unified School District through state grant money.
“The teachers really listen when the kids speak,” said Miller, a former teacher at Fremont Junior High School. “They allow them to use creativity.”
The children in Julie Sanford’s kindergarten class are eager to offer what they like best about school.
“I like playing with toys and doing art,” Connor said.
Kalika, a precocious 5-year-old, had a slightly different preference: “You get to go to recess.”
These youngsters are in this special place for a short time in their lives. It’s never too late, as Melmed said, but it’s just harder the longer you wait.
“Childhood has to be a magical place,” he said. “These children are the only princes and princesses that we will ever know.”