Ashontianna Smith is only 4 months old, but she eagerly grasped the small brightly colored picture book. She patted the pictures with her tiny hands as her mother, LaSarah Todd, turned the thick pages.
"She's really into the colors book," Todd said as they sat on the couch in her Millville apartment.
Todd, 18, admits that left on her own, she wouldn't have started books at such a young age.
"I didn't think she'd respond this way until she was almost a year old," Todd said.
Debra Lore, a nurse with the state Nurse-Family Partnership program, brought the book. Lore worked with Todd through her pregnancy, helped her graduate from high school, and is now showing her how to give her daughter an early start on learning.
As research continues to show how rapidly the brain develops, the definition of early childhood learning is expanding to include newborns and toddlers.
That means teaching the adults who interact with babies and toddlers parenting and playtime skills because those early lessons help babies start to develop the critical thinking skills and emotional behavior that take them successfully to adulthood.
President Barack Obama made early education a campaign pledge, and the higher education bill that passed the House of Representatives this month includes $8 billion over eight years for the Early Learning Challenge Fund to improve programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
Still, public funding for preschool education is small when compared to the billions of dollars spent on K-12 education. In New Jersey, the state Department of Children and Families, or DCF, has budgeted $4.75 million this year for programs targeting very young at-risk children. Another $7.6 million is allocated for 37 Family Success Centers in 16 counties.
The state Department of Education budgets about $570 million per year for public preschool serving predominantly 3- and 4-year olds from low-income families.
Research shows that by age 3, children from low-income families are lagging behind their middle- and upper-class counterparts in vocabulary development, the base for future learning. DCF commissioner Kimberly Ricketts said they are working to reach younger children through the Family Success Centers, home visitations, and child care providers.
"It is a movement that is expanding," she said. "We are now able to reach more families that would not get these services."
'Core of all learning'
Early childhood advocates want to reach more youngsters, especially those in low-income areas. Groups such as Pre-K Now and the The First Five Years Fund have leveraged private foundation dollars into a lobbying effort to give at-risk children an early start on learning.
"Language development is at the core of all learning," said The First Five Years Fund director Cornelia Grumman, who hopes to see a million more children get services in the next five years through Head Start, Early Head Start and child care grants. "We must start earlier."
Family Success Centers are open to all, and serve as a link to other community services. Executive Director Kimberly Friddell said Vineland's Impact Center partners with South Jersey Healthcare on such varied services as counseling, child evaluations, a pregnant and parenting teen program, and a Parents Anonymous group. The center has served 250 families so far this year.
"We're trying to break bad cycles and develop good patterns," Impact coordinator Donna Cooper said. "We collaborate with the schools to try to reach beyond the child to the family."
The Robin's Nest in Glassboro started in 1968 as a group home for adolescent girls. It now offers 40 programs throughout southern New Jersey including a Home Visitation Program for new parents and the Nurse-Family Partnership that sends nurses like Lore to new mothers' homes. The Parents as Teachers program helps mothers stimulate their baby's brain development.
"The parent is the first teacher," Debra Cornelius, Robin's Nest director said. "This is a window of opportunity in brain development."
Teaching the parents
"Babies are born learning," said Al Race, director of Communications for the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. "Learning is what builds the brain's architecture."
He said the explosion of research in the past decade has provided the data needed to support efforts to expand programs, especially for at-risk children.
But convincing new parents can be a challenge. At the Atlantic City library, youth services coordinator Maureen Moffit recruits new mothers to bring their babies to the weekly Baby Bounce program, a colorful, fast-paced half-hour of songs, music, books and physical interaction targeting children from six months to 20 months and their parents.
"I will visit a program in Cherry Hill, and it's packed," she said. "Here, parents will tell me their baby is too young, and I'll say no, they're not, just come."
Thursday's program included three children ages 11 months, 18 months and two years. The hand-held maracas and musical toys were a hit, and all three toddlers shook them vigorously throughout the program.
"Babies learn by listening and imitating," Moffit said. "They may not seem like they're paying attention, but they take it all in. It all boils down to raising awareness. Parents who do come are often really surprised at their baby's reaction."
Parent Melanie Brough said she doesn't bring her daughter Lilia to the library often because the 18-month-old can be pretty loud. But both enjoyed Baby Bounce, where Lilia laughed, ran around and played with her sticky name tag.
Ruqayyah Abdur-Rahmann wants to start teaching 2-year-old Jibril to read, so she also came to get advice.
"He loves books," she said. "We're working on letters, and I want him to start recognizing words."
Harvard's Race said in order to learn, babies and toddlers need a safe, stable environment with caring, responsive adults.
"People underestimate the influence of stress," he said.
Babies and toddlers will thrive in positive stress such as meeting new people and learning new skills.
They will survive tolerable stress such as an accident or an illness, if they have adult support to help them adapt.
But, Rice said, MRI scans have shown that toxic stress, which develops when a child is abused or neglected and gets no support from adults, can damage a child's brain permanently, leading to learning and behavioral problems that last a lifetime.
"Not all parents provide that support, and society ends up paying one way or another," Race said. "The early childhood movement really is about providing equal opportunity. We know what babies need, and what they need to be protected from. What we still need is the public will to provide it."
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