Monthly Archives: June 2016

Your Baby’s Brain: Wired to Connect

The work of the brain at birth is to begin laying down an internal infrastructure of language that enables the child to make sense of the outside world, preparing her for her ultimate purpose—which is to connect.

Watch the drive to connect in action in three month old Piper’s focused alertness and vocalization as her daddy reads The Hungry Caterpillar to her.

According to Susan Brink, author of The Fourth Trimester: Understanding, Nurturing, and Protecting an Infant Through the First Three Months, hearing develops long before birth. The newborn, already accustomed to the sounds of the muffled maternal voice, recognizes and responds to a mother’s voice first. Beyond a mother’s voice, the sounds in a baby’s world are a meaningless din. But here is where the real learning begins.

“…lest anyone think these undifferentiated noises are useless, think again. With an innate skill that would be the envy of a statistics student, newborns are keeping track of probabilities; setting up neural connections in response to the patterns of the words they hear. They are learning where one word ends and another begins before they utter their first da-da.”[i]

Patricia Kuhl, a neuroscientist and leading expert on speech development at the University of Washington, has discovered that babies are born with the ability to hear the sound distinctions of every language that exists, but by ten months of age—maybe sooner—that ability is lost, “pruned away by a brain eager to cultivate what will be needed and get rid of what won’t.” [ii]

Human babies arrive in this world poised to learn.

At birth, Brink claims, babies possess “…billions of brain cells, or neurons, but little in the way of an internal communication network. Immediately, every interaction with the world–each touch, word, smell, look—helps the baby lay down an infrastructure of dendrites, the branched projections that receive and send signals between neurons.”[iii] The science that enables us to understand that infants begin learning immediately at birth, or even before, is clear and its implications are profound.

But perhaps even more profound than the fact of how soon learning begins is the beautiful metaphor that the brain cell reveals to us, for it organically demonstrates a truth about what it means to be human.

The work of the brain at birth is to begin making connections that enable the child to make sense of the outside world, preparing her for her ultimate purpose, to love. As parents it is important for us to understand that learning is a drive organically rooted in a child’s physical being, and its ultimate aim is to create a meaningful life. When we speak, sing, and read to our child from birth, this loving way of engaging builds neural pathways in the brain that become the physical infrastructure for all future learning and loving.

Learning, therefore, is connection, rooted in relationship.

Major religions throughout history have proclaimed a life of love as the highest human calling, and the observations of those who work in hospice care are equally compelling. Paradoxically, death often illuminates what is most important in life, and those who accompany the dying in life’s final stage are privileged to bear witness to their reflections as they look back over their lives. Social worker Grace Bluerock wrote,

“For six years, I had the amazing gift of being able to experience with people their final days and weeks. For most, these last days and weeks were spent looking back over their lives in deep contemplation. Many regrets were expressed, and many tears were shed. As a hospice social worker, I got a front row seat into the lives of those precious souls as they attempted to come to terms with how they spent their time on this earth. Everyone’s story was different, but each held common threads and similar regrets.” [iv]

The number one regret Bluerock observed in the dying during her years of service is that people wished they had loved more deeply. No one dies wishing they had made more money or worked harder. Ironically, at the moment of our departure from life we are perhaps most conscious of the instinct that existed as an unconscious urge from the very beginning—the longing to connect.

Our very purpose is imbedded in the work of our brain cells as we enter the world, and its function is a metaphor for what we as humans are destined to do.

A child’s drive to connect with his parents is important to understand, as it is the foundation for all learning. From birth on, babies are at work making connections and building the mental and emotional infrastructure that will make sense of the world and carry them into life. As parents of a newborn, we are that world, and the primary responsibility to nurture this process is ours. Speaking, singing, and reading aloud honor our infant’s drive to bond with us and nurtures the emerging internal infrastructure that will carry him into future learning and life.

 

[i] Susan Brink. “Through a Newborn’s Senses.” Los Angeles Times, May 11. 2013.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Grace Bluerock. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/grace-bluerock/5-most-valuable-life-lessons-i-learned-hospice-worker_b_7499030.html

 

 

A Culture at Risk

girl w ipadTwo-thirds of U.S. Students Currently Underperform in Literacy Proficiency

Only about one-third of students performed at or above the proficient level in reading in 2015, according to the NAEP, our nation’s report card. The corollary to this is sobering: Nearly 70% of students in the United States are not proficient readers. 

Every two years the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests “representative samples of approximately 279,000 fourth-graders and 273,000 eighth-graders. Results are reported for public and private school students in the nation, and for public school students in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Department of Defense schools. In addition, results are available for 21 participating urban districts.” (nationalreportcard.gov)

Dire Predictions

  •  “…if static literacy levels continue , then by 2030 the entire Literacy Level of the U.S. population will have decreased, creating an American work force that is unequipped and unskilled to work in the demanding global market.” Educational Testing Service (ETS) (Fact About Kids and Reading. balanced reading.com/Scholastic_reading_facts)
  • “Literacy problems in the United States have reached the point of being considered a major public health problem with serious consequences.” Dr. Margot Kelman, The American Speech-Language Hearing Association (Literacy Development in Infants and Toddlers: Research Findings. speech pathology.com).

Targeted Solutions

Our efforts to raise the literacy level in the United States must be targeted where learning begins—in infancy. It is no wonder the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that all parents read aloud to their children from birth. Recent findings in brain science prove that infants begin learning at birth and that their senses of touch and hearing actually begin developing en utero (Susan Brink: The Fourth Trimester: Understanding, Nurturing, and Protecting an Infant Through the First Three Months). Physicians and health services in obstetrics and maternity must follow their lead. Right alongside classes on baby care and breastfeeding, parenting education should include the importance of reading, speaking, and singing to a newborn.

What’s Missing from our National Conversation on Education

lightbulb pendulumAs the chasm between rich and poor continues to grow and the middle class shrinks in the United States, we look to education as the primary tool for rectifying inequity across the socio-economic classes and leveling the economic playing field. Politicians stump for education reform and pass legislation. Head Start. No Child Left Behind. Common Core. Teachers are held responsible for student achievement and often vilified and scapegoated by the media when test scores don’t improve. Cyclically, educational reform swings like a pendulum between the poles of ‘meeting children where they are’ and ‘raising the bar’. The conversation is ongoing and shifts nearly every decade but there is one constant, and that is the absence of discussion about what happens before a child arrives at school.

New research in brain development validates what some educators and parents have long suspected to be true. The first years of life are critical in the formation and receptivity of the primary predictor of success in school: language skills. The answer to what parents can do to enable their child to have the best possible start in school and in life is simple. Speak and read to your child. Continually. Begin at birth, or even before.

That the essential role of parents in their child’s learning is not in the forefront of our national conversation on education is a glaring omission. One might assume the reason for this void is that it’s politically inexpedient to put it there. Parents might take offense and feel blamed, and the economically strapped who live in survival mode may feel they can’t afford the time and don’t have the money to acquire and read books to their children. While fear of appearing insensitive no doubt contributes to the silence, after thirty years in education I’ve come to believe something even more fundamental is involved.

Many well-intentioned people—from politicians to parents from all walks of life and even some in education—simply do not fully understand the phenomenal and far-reaching impact of spending a few minutes each day reading aloud to their child. Having taught children from a wide variety of economic and educational backgrounds, I’ve observed that this lack of awareness on the part of parents cuts across all socio-economic groups and seems to have accelerated in proportion to the proliferation of technology in our daily lives. While it’s surprising that educational experts have only recently begun to look at the importance of the early years and their impact on learning in a new field called “emerging literacy,” it is also heartening. Research in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and language acquisition are also demonstrating that infants are far more receptive than we may ever have realized.

For our children’s sake–their future and our own–it is time to put aside our reluctance to consider this phase of children’s lives and look at the facts. As responsible parents we quickly learn what we need to do to care for our baby’s physical health. Regular visits to the pediatrician, proper nutrition and hygiene, bathing, and, eventually, a sleep schedule. We practice all these things so that our children will be healthy and thrive. What we also must understand is that the choices we as parents make during these early years have a tremendous impact on our child’s emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth as well. Because of its ability to cultivate all of these things, it’s time to bring reading from birth into the conversation.