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Words Matter: Preparing Our Kids for Success

reading to child

By Jennifer Dobner
WebMD Health News

Back-to-school time might bring some anxious feelings for parents sending their children off to class for the very first time. Are the little ones ready? How do we know we’ve done all we can to get them off on the right track to academic success and a lifetime of learning?

Science has known for decades that talking to our kids early on — from birth to age 3 — helps build a strong foundation for school success, says Dana Suskind, MD. She’s a University of Chicago surgeon and the founder and director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative. Parents haven’t always been armed with that information, so we’ve turned to Suskind for an explanation of the issues and some parenting tips.

“Think of it like this,”she says. “Every word you say builds your child’s brain.  Filling everyday experiences with rich language grows your child’s vocabulary and makes him more school-ready in every subject area.”

Q: What is the best thing a parent can do to prepare their child for school? 

A: Babies aren’t born smart; they’re made smart by their parents talking and interacting with them.

We’ve all heard the idea that children’s brains are like sponges, absorbing everything going on around them. What your child’s brain is soaking in makes connections in his or her brain.  Everything you do with a young child — talking, playing, singing, responding — builds the brain and in fact, 85% of brain development happens in the first 3 years of a child’s life. These brain connections are the ones your child will use to think and talk for the rest of his or her life.  The more connections being made, the easier thinking and talking will be and the better prepared your child will be for school.

To help your child maximize their intellectual potential, Thirty Million Words recommends using the 3T strategies: Tune In, Talk More, and Take Turns.  Tune In and respond to what your child is communicating. Talk More and build your child’s vocabulary with descriptive language. Take Turns to engage your child in conversation and foster curiosity and knowledge.

Routine times of day, like bath time or as they are dressing each morning, provide perfect opportunities to use the 3Ts.

Q: How do language skills enhance brain development to help our kids achieve academically?

Simply put, a child who has been exposed to more words will know more words.  A robust vocabulary provides a solid foundation for your child to build upon once he or she starts school. Your child will have an easier time understanding the teacher’s instructions, lessons, and learning to read.

But it takes more than being smart to do well in school.  A child’s behavior is just as important as his intelligence.  A child who is unable to sit still or follow a teacher’s directions will have a harder time learning in school.  Science tells us that strong language skills come into play here, as well.  Research suggests that some children with poor language skills have difficulty communicating with others and controlling their own behavior.  Exposing your child to language, through talking, reading, and singing with them, not only builds your child’s language skills, but helps your child learn to self-regulate.

Q: How does reading aloud together fit into the picture?

Reading is an essential piece of the puzzle and offers wonderful opportunities for you to talk more with your child.  Reading aloud with children not only strengthens their language and pre-reading skills, but it also strengthens the parent-child bond.  It exposes children to words they wouldn’t normally hear in everyday conversation.  It teaches them about places they’ve never been and things they’ve never seen. It’s also an opportunity for parents to tune into a child’s interests and take turns talking about the book. You want to turn reading into a conversation.

Studies show that children read to as infants have larger vocabularies and more math skills when they enter kindergarten.  Similarly, reading proficiency at third grade is the most significant predictor of high school graduation and career success.

Q:If you havent been reading to your child, is it ever too late to start? 

It’s never too late to start reading with your child.  Even parents who aren’t big readers can enjoy story time and create learning opportunities for their children with books.

Reading with young kids can be a challenge.  Making a child sit still and listen to every word on every page can be frustrating for all involved.  Instead, have a conversation about the book.  Tune in to what is grabbing your child’s attention and talk about it.  He may want to hold the book or turn the pages.  Let him. She may just want to look for pictures of trains.  Let her.  He may lose interest and turn his attention elsewhere.  Go with the flow.  When you let your young child lead the way during story time, you’re both maximizing what your child gains from the experience and minimizing the potential stress for you.

Q: What about technology? Its so prevalent in our childrens lives, but should they be using it at all?

The science on how technology impacts learning is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is that technology is here to stay. Technology, itself, isn’t necessarily a positive or a negative, but how parents and children are using it makes a difference.

A child watching television or playing on a tablet by himself isn’t going to benefit in ways that a child who is doing the same activities with a parent [will]. Technology has a better chance of enhancing learning when it’s an interactive, rather than a passive, experience for the child.  An important factor to consider is the quality of the media that the child is accessing on the technology. It can be hard for parents to make their way through all of the clutter and find quality content, but there are resources to help. Common Sense Media and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center both focus on promoting safe technology and media for children. The Ounce of Prevention Parent University literacy program also provides daily text messages to parents with suggestions for age-appropriate activities to boost literacy.

Q: How can parents balance the use of technology with traditional book reading or other activities?

For children under age 2, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no screen time at all.  Brain development is at its most active in these early years, and young children learn best by interacting with people.  At age 2 and older,  the AAP recommends limiting screen time to 2 hours a day.  Be sure to monitor your child’s choices, and whenever possible, view it together and engage your child  in conversation about what you’re watching or doing.

As for reading, AAP recommends making reading a part of your daily routine from birth, even if only for a few minutes.  Story time for an infant may look more like chewing on the binding.  For a toddler it may be counting objects or looking for shapes in the picture.  For a preschooler it may be reading the same story over, and over, and over again.  Whatever the age, follow your child’s lead and talk about what’s grabbing his or her attention to help them get the most out of the experience.

Q: What if your child doesnt seem interested in books or if they arent developing language skills at the same rate as their siblings or other kids their age? When should a parent seek help, and where should they start? 

If you have any concerns about your child’s development, don’t hesitate to seek help.  Your pediatrician is a great place to start.  For kids under age 3,  early intervention services may be an option.  For older children, school districts are available for guidance.  Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Q: Where might parents look for resources to help them prepare their kids for school?

Libraries, community centers, and medical professionals are helpful places to begin.  Organizations like the Thirty Million WordsInitiative, Too Small To Fail, Sesame Workshop, and Zero to Three are great online resources for parents. Common Sense Media, WebMD, and Joan Ganz Cooney Center also offer great insights to help parents navigate all the technology that is available to children.

The most important resource, though, are the parents themselves. As parents, we are the first and most important teachers our children will have.  Everything our children need to be school-ready can be activated and nurtured by us.  It’s a matter of harnessing the power of our words and talking, reading, [and] singing with our children that helps enrich their early language environments, build their brains, and shape their futures.

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