Taking Baby Brain Science to the Streets

There certainly seems to be a lot of encouraging activity taking place in the world of early childhood these days – from campaigns such as Let’s Move to efforts dedicated to identifying high quality child care and insuring that it is both accessible and affordable for all. As a pediatrician trained in the so-called “hard” sciences, one of the most intriguing aspects of this activity, in my opinion, is the movement to effectively and impactfully take early brain science to the streets.

Before jumping ahead to some of the exciting and innovative work that’s now being done, it’s worth reviewing (in admittedly oversimplified terms) how we got here. The 1990’s were characterized by a “concerted effort to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research,” earning it its recognition as the “decade of the brain.” In 2000, the IOM released a galvanizing consensus report on the science of early childhood development – representing both a rallying cry and a very big next step in the brain-building movement. Aptly titled From Neurons to Neighborhoods, it served as a broad and firm, evidence-informed foundation for what we are increasingly seeing: direct connections being forged between the burgeoning brain science and what’s being done to directly promote healthy experiences and environments for all young children…on our “streets” and in our neighborhoods, our communities and across the country.

I have found that on the brain science side of the equation, nowhere is the large and growing body of early brain-based research more accessible, compelling and clearly articulated than Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, under the leadership of Neurons to Neighborhoods editor, Dr. Jack Shonkoff. Based on a firm believe that the science of early childhood – right down to the developing brain architecture – can be used to develop more effective policies and services focused on building resilience, developing executive function and self regulation skills, and ultimately preventing the potentially neurotoxic effects of poverty, adversity and toxic stress for those most at risk.

Adding to our increasingly deep and detailed understanding of the baby brain is interdisciplinary research being done at places like the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS). Headed up by renowned baby brain researchers Patricia Kuhl and Andy Meltzoff, I-LABS is using intriguing modes of dynamic neuro-imaging such as MEG (magnetoencephalography) to not only provide compelling new insights, data and images about the connecting of neurons and the mechanisms for early learning, but also collaborating with people and organizations who can quickly translate this work into real-world applications.

With respect to these “real-world” applications, The First 1000 Days author Roger Thurow captures the importance of translating this science when he states, “If we want to shape the future…we have 1000 days to do it, mother by mother, child by child.” For anyone dedicated to doing just that, it’s heartening to see just how wide a range of brain-building efforts there are now in place across the country – all dedicated to helping all children reach their full potential by directly offering parents and caregivers evidence-based brain-building information, activities and support. Whether bringing the message to families where they live – on their phones, in their inboxes, on their screens or on their doorsteps – the following are a sampling of these brain-building efforts.

Vroom. Vroom’s brain-building message is clear: Shared everyday moments, from mealtime to bathtime, can easily be turned into brain building moments, and that parents have what it takes to become master brain builders. Suggestions for fun, everyday age-specific activities meant to “spark connections” are made easily available via the free Vroom app, along with practical tips, videos and even badges of encouragement. As for future efforts, watch for everyday brain-building messages to make their way on to the packaging of trusted brands. Supported by the Bezos Family Foundation, one look at the Brain Trust behind Vroom and it leaves no doubt that the best in early brain science is at its core.

Thirty Million Words Initiative. With a name based on the 1995 landmark findings of Hart & Risley, who found that preschoolers from families on welfare were exposed to a full 30 million fewer words than their high-income counterparts, Thirty Million Words Initiative is a Chicago-based, parent-directed program that employs the power of home visitation, one-on-one and group interactions, social media, and the use of the LENA word pedometer to study, build relationships, educate and support powerful parent-child interactions and children’s early language development.

Too Small To Fail. Given the foundational importance of early language development and exposure to words, Too Small’s to Fail’s parent-directed Talking is Teaching efforts include direct-to-parent tips and resources focused on talking, reading and singing with young children that are delivered via email and also available on Twitter (@TooSmallToFail). This is a partnership between the Clinton Foundation and The Opportunity Institute meant to improve the health & well-being of America’s children ages 0 to 5 years.

Text4Baby. Text4baby is a free mobile messaging service provided by Zero to Three – an organization dedicated to advancing the proven power of early connections – in partnership with Voxiva. Text4baby provides personalized, evidence-based health information in the form of text messages for moms and babies throughout the critical period of pregnancy and the first year.

Sesame Street. That’s right…when it comes to taking early brain science – complete with its implications for both cognitive and social emotional development – “to the street,” one needs look no further than the beloved Sesame Street. Founded on helping reach all children with life-changing opportunities to learn, a Sesame Workshop – RWJF collaboration is allowing the Sesame Workshop team to study how best to create and directly deliver the brain-building resources we now know are so fundamentally important for young children’s healthy cognitive and social-emotional development. If you aren’t familiar with past contributions of Sesame to this realm, just take a look at what they can endearingly do with key concepts such as self-control (a core component of executive functions skill development) and empathy.

Are the 3 R’s of Education Sufficient for the Future?

When I was a kid in the 1970s and ‘80s, those who could memorize the most facts and calculate figures the fastest were generally deemed the smartest and most likely to succeed. You could say a “cognitive” and “IQ”-based view of intelligence prevailed.

Enter technology and the shift from Industrial to Information Age. Nowadays, facts and figures have been rendered far more easily accessible to far more people than ever before. At the same time, our increasingly complex and globalized world is placing new demands on us to think critically and creatively; and now more than ever to “play well” with, empathize with and read other people. 

Continue reading “Are the 3 R’s of Education Sufficient for the Future?”

Hello. Allow Me to Introduce You to the QI Skills.

If you haven’t heard of QI skills before, you are not alone.

That’s because the use of the word “QI” (pronounced “key”) to describe a set of valuable 21st century skills is, in fact, altogether new as a concept I introduce in my new book, The Toddler Brain: Nurture the Skills Today That Will Shape Your Child’s Tomorrow. The familiar set of skills that I have collectively dubbed “QI,” however, are anything but new and likely to be quite familiar. Continue reading “Hello. Allow Me to Introduce You to the QI Skills.”

Teen Driver Safety

News of teen car crash victims invariably get me choked up, but I have recently found myself thinking even more than usual about teenage drivers. I’m sure this is in large part due to the fact that my oldest child has now started talking about what car she hopes to drive in the not-too-distant future. I’m pretty sure it’s also because of the recent news detailing the incredibly sad local story about teenage sisters involved in a fatal crash. But to be honest, this time of year always makes me think about the risks involved in newly licensed teens getting behind the wheel. I’m not sure why the time of year should make a difference – since the premature death of a teenager is without exception a horribly sad occasion in any season. But there’s apparently something even more devastatingly newsworthy about covering the senseless loss of life when it happens on prom night or just after graduation when teens should be excitedly preparing to embark on their future, not being laid to rest. Continue reading “Teen Driver Safety”

Kids, Coats and Cold Weather

I have to say, it’s a good thing I have the opportunity to talk to lots of parents on a regular basis, if for no other reason than because I’m able to reassure myself that I’m not the only parent having conversations like this one:

Me:     “You can’t wear shorts today.”

Child who shall go nameless: “Why not?”

Me:     “It’s winter, and it’s too cold outside for shorts.”

Child (still wearing shorts):    “So?! I’m not cold.”

Me:     “It’s not just a little cold. It’s frigid outside. As in snow temperature. As in it’s sub-zero wind chill and like the arctic tundra outside. Now go change!”

Child (still not changing):        “But mom, WHY?!”

Me:     “Because I give people parenting advice for a living, and if you don’t, you’ll make me look bad, so end of discussion – go change!” Continue reading “Kids, Coats and Cold Weather”

The Problem with Childhood Vaccines

To get right to the point, I find that the problem with vaccines (or at least writing about them) is that more people are likely to read what I’m about to write if I imply there’s a problem with them then if I were to simply state that vaccines happen to be one of the single most life-saving accomplishments of the twentieth century – appropriately credited with literally transforming the landscape of medicine. That’s not to say that a majority of the general public doesn’t take vaccines seriously. But in this day and age – when we all reap their benefits – we perhaps run the risk of taking vaccines a bit too much for granted. Continue reading “The Problem with Childhood Vaccines”

An Alternative to Valentine’s Day Chocolate: Reasons to Dance Your Heart Out

Valentine’s Day is undeniably all about love and sweethearts. It’s also defined by the heartfelt gifts of chocolates, sweets and (candy) hearts so plentiful this time of year. Now it’s not that I think we need to do away with all of these sweet gifts in lieu of a more heart-healthy approach to Valentine’s Day. But it has occurred to me that this holiday could mean so much more when it comes to finding ways for our loved ones to have happy hearts. To get you one step closer to achieving this goal, I’d like to suggest that you, your kids, and your sweetheart all get up and dance. That’s right…dance! Continue reading “An Alternative to Valentine’s Day Chocolate: Reasons to Dance Your Heart Out”

Helping Children Cope with School Shootings

My children and I took our first trip to India over the holidays, accompanying my U.S.-born husband who hadn’t been back to visit relatives in over 20 years. The trip was eye-opening. We traveled all over India – making our way through big cities and tiny villages as we visited relatives and introduced our children to a world very different from the one they know. Continue reading “Helping Children Cope with School Shootings”

Winter, Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, and Family Safety

In an attempt to maintain my glass-half-full view of the world, I’m always relieved when I sit down to read the morning paper and come across a good tragedy-averted story interspersed amongst the doom and gloom. So believe me when I say I was particularly happy to read John Schreier’s article, Carbon monoxide sickens students. While it’s unfortunate that more than 40 UNL students recently wound up at the hospital after waking to symptoms consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning, the operative word in this description would have to be “waking.” Because the fact of the matter is that carbon monoxide is one of the leading causes of poisoning deaths in the United States. Often dubbed “the silent killer,” this toxic gas is colorless, tasteless and odorless, but has the deadly ability to disrupt the body’s use of oxygen. In other words, things could have been worse at the UNL fraternity house. Much worse. Continue reading “Winter, Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, and Family Safety”