One Year, Twenty-nine Words

Hi. Bye. Bubbles. Mama. Dada. Granddad. Up. Aqua. Ball. Baba. Tickle. Poof. Boo. Moo. Banana. Purple. Hello. Uh-oh. Quack. Woof. Puff. Chris. Thank you. Gus. Diaper. Good. Book. Ooops. and Butt paste... This is the list of words that we have heard our daughter June say in recent weeks leading up to her first birthday compiled by her grandparents, her dad and myself. If you've read my blog, or if you know me at all, I hope you know by now that I am not writing this to brag. As an educator, I am so passionate about sharing any information I can with other moms, dads, caregivers, or anyone willing to read, that will help them to know how important their role is in their child's brain development. In fact, in her book Thirty Million Words, Dr. Dana Suskind says, "the most important component in brain development is the relationship between the baby and his or her caretaker."

The brain, unlike all other organs in the body, is underdeveloped at birth. In fact, it grows 85% in the first three years of life. Before reading Thirty Million Words I had no idea that a child's optimal brain growth is completely 100% dependent on parents creating a warm, loving, positive language environment, and I'm an educator! At first, I was appalled that my daughter's pediatrician didn't share this information with me. Then, the more I read, I realized that the research on early childhood cognitive development has just begun to materialize in the past decade, or so, thanks to fMRI studies (functional neuroimaging procedure using MRI technology) that allow us to measure brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. The science is clear that positive language, and parent talk, are essential nutrition for the growing brain, and Suskind's book, published just last year, is the first to reveal this new scientifically proven perspective. 

As I started to apply Suskind's research advice of creating a positive language environment by narrating absolutely everything I did with June, I felt like a complete wierdo. I could be seen with my infant at the grocery store chatting about what to make for dinner, or on walks talking about the weather, or singing songs around the house about her sweet potato poo. I'm sure people, including my husband, thought I was having some post-partum mental issues (which is probably a little true also). But, at three-months-old she began communicating back by mimicking what I was saying. (See the video below, and please excuse the baby-talk). Fast forward almost a year to June's first birthday, and we are definitely seeing the results of Suskind's advice to tune-in, talk more, and take turns when communicating with your child to create an optimal language environment, and ultimately, optimal cognitive development. 

Confession: If you were to spend one day with my little family, you would most likely see June intentionally smack one of us in the face, flail her body like a fish out of water while getting her diaper changed, and probably bite someone. I don't think anyone would describe June as an angel. You would also see her dad and me getting frustrated with her, using a harsh tone, and one, or both of us, checking for an adult beverage because we just need a break from this parenting stuff. Intentional parenting is incredibly hard, and we struggle daily. But, we have done our best to apply this research to our daughter's life, and have seen the results. 

The reason I want to share this information with everyone I talk to, and anyone willing to read, is because, as an educator, I have seen the negative effects of children who are not exposed to a positive language environment, and even, worse, are being raised in, what researchers call, toxic stress environments. Exposing children to language is great for their intelligence, but it also helps the development of the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functions, including working memory, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility (Tough, p. 15). The prefrontal cortex doesn't just develop in a positive way on its own, but is highly susceptible, and reactive, to the environment in which the child is exposed to. Therefore, if a child is raised in a warm, loving home with a positive language environment then the prefrontal cortex should develop just beautifully. In contrast, if a child is raised in a stressful environment with negative or volatile parent talk, the development of the prefrontal cortex (and, therefore, self-regulation and executive function) is stunted, compromising the child's ability to deal with the basic stresses of life (Suskind, p. 112). The child simply will not have developed the ability to regulate him or herself emotionally or cognitively if this brain development is hindered in the first three years of life.

Then, at the age of five-years-old, these underdeveloped brains enter kindergarten where it is the job of educators to help them learn. But, a child who has poorly developed self-regulation and executive function will have a hard time learning because the part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that would have allowed them to focus on a single activity for an extended period, or the ability to understand and follow directions, or the ability to cope with disappointment and frustration, or the ability to interact capably with other students, was not developed in the first three years of life (Tough, p. 29). As Suskind bluntly states, "if a child's mind can't, in a sense, quiet itself or concentrate on the information being presented, that information will not be absorbed by the child. It's that simple. The result is not only curtailed learning at that moment, but a poor prognosis for future learning, regardless of the child's potential IQ." (Suskind, p. 112). 

While all kids are susceptible to a toxic stress environments, statistics show that children born into poverty, particularly boys, are especially at risk because of the natural stressors that come along with living in adversity (Suskind, p. 112). I want to be very clear that I do not think parents raising their children in poverty, or any parents for that matter, intentionally create stressful home environments that could potentially hinder their child's ability to learn, but, rather, just don't know the importance of their role as parents in their child's development. As I stated above, I am an educator, with a Masters degree, and I didn't know how crucial I was to June's cognitive development until I started doing the research. I know many parents of children living in poverty that love their children deeply, and would do anything to enhance their child's development, if they only knew how. And, that's why I continue to spend my free-time blogging, and most of my conversations talking about this, because I believe if parents were just empowered with this knowledge then their children would thrive, just as mine has this past year.

Luckily, there are many psychologists, doctors, scientists, economists, educators and policy makers who believe the same thing, and are pouring resources into research not only to help caregivers best support children in the home, but to help educators create school environments in which all students will succeed, regardless of their first three years of life. I look forward to continuing to share this research because, as Paul Tough states in his book Helping Children Succeed, "when children grow up in an environment marked by stable, responsive parenting; by schools the make them feel a sense of belonging and purpose; and by classroom teachers who challenge and support them, they thrive, and their opportunities for a successful life increase exponentially." And, who doesn't want that, for all our children?