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Positive Parenting Overcomes the Effects of Poverty on Brain Development

New research shows that positive parenting can overcome the effects of poverty on healthy brain development in adolescents.  In a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Brody and colleagues described a neuroimaging study demonstrating that supportive parenting prevented the reduced growth of certain areas of the brain that occurred as a response to living in poverty.

Positive parenting and brain development

Numerous studies on the association of poverty with poor academic and psychosocial outcomes in childhood have pointed to the critical role of stress on brain development. Physical and social stress that often occurs during childhood in lower socioeconomic environments can influence the growth of the brain. In particular, there is evidence that development of the amygdala and hippocampus, brain regions that support learning, memory, mood and stress reactivity, is suppressed in disadvantaged children.

Brody et al conducted a neuroimaging study on 119 25-year-olds who had participated as adolescents in the Strong African American Families randomized trial (SAAF), a program designed to mitigate the negative effect of life stress on rural African American youths by encouraging positive parenting.  The intention of the study was to correlate the size of specific areas of the hippocampus and amygdala in these individuals, as determined by magnetic resonance imaging, with the number of years between the ages of 11 and 18 that they had lived under the federal poverty line. 

The results showed that, in the control population that had not been enrolled into the SAAF program, more time spent living in poverty was associated with smaller than average volume in areas of the amygdala and hippocampus. The good news was that this suppressive effect of poverty on brain maturation was prevented in those youths whose families had the benefit of the SAAF intervention. The promotion of positive parenting had conferred resilience to the stress of poverty. Importantly, this protective effect was detected at age 25 - it had lasted into adulthood. 

Interestingly, these positive results were achieved in a program serving the families of adolescent children. More than 95% of brain development occurs during the first six years of life, and the brain is particularly susceptible to the stress associated with poverty during this timeframe

Through the Reach Out and Read program, pediatric care providers are able to take advantage of their access to children during these early years. They encourage parents to spend time engaging with their young children through looking at books together starting in infancy,building the parent-child bonds that will alleviate the effects of adverse circumstances in the early years. 

This study encourages us that, through interventions that help parents to bring up their children in a positive, responsive way, it is possible to buffer against the consequences of poverty and low socioeconomic environments.  Leveling the playing field for disadvantaged children in this way can contribute to closing the achievement gap.

Written by Nikki Shearman at 08:32

How To Promote Positive, Responsive Early Childhood Parenting

A look at how to encourage families to adopt positive, responsive parenting practices using the framework proposed in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard

 

It is widely accepted that our experience in the first 1,000 days of life sets the stage for later success and that America's growing achievement gap is best attacked by targeting the development of children from infancy. Given that parents or caregivers are the main influence in young children's lives, programs like Reach Out and Read that effectively provide parents with the information and tools they need to give their children the best start in life have a powerful effect on our communities and society.

The success of any intervention depends on getting people to embrace change, and this is a particular challenge for programs that aim to promote a difference in parenting styles. Encouraging families, whose parenting is a deeply engrained response to their own childhood, to adopt new practices is an aspect of any early childhood intervention that needs to be carefully considered.

switch coverI recently read the book Switch, subtitled How to Change Things When Change is Hard by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. I'm a little late to the table, as Switch was published to great acclaim in 2010, and was on the New York Times bestseller list for 47 weeks. On the Heath brothers' website, Switch is described, accurately, as "a compelling, story-driven narrative [that brings] together decades of counterintuitive research in psychology, sociology and other fields to shed new light on how we can effect transformative change."

Using the analogy of a rider on an elephant, the authors propose a three-part framework to bring about change - direct the rider (the rational mind), motivate the elephant (the emotional mind), and shape the path (the environment). They describe how, to elicit change, it's essential to articulate crystal clear instructions that enable the rider to direct the elephant, to make an emotional appeal that will give the elephant energy to move in the right direction, and to provide an environment conducive to change. Considering Reach Out and Read from this perspective, I am impressed that, despite predating the publication of Switch by 21 years, our model follows their framework!

First, let's look at directing the rider. With the aim of encouraging families to develop positive, responsive parenting, Reach Out and Read doctors promote reading aloud every day. In recent years, it has become clear that healthy early brain development is dependent on positive family interactions in which parents engage with their young children right from the start. And yet an instruction to "engage with your young children every day" is difficult to put into practice. A simple message to read aloud every day, given with details as to how best to do this at each developmental stage, is a great way of helping parents spend some time each day connecting with their infants and toddlers. Even when it seems strange to suggest that parents read aloud to a baby, it can be easier for many parents to cuddle a young child and let them hear the sound of their voice as they read aloud than to think of what to say.

switch - mother & childSecondly, motivating the elephant. The emotional instinct for all parents in wanting to do the best for their children is huge; they often just want to be shown how. Knowing that spending time with their children and connecting with them will help prepare their children for school and for all that follows, and having an easily manageable way to do this, parents are motivated to make change. As Rosa, one of our Reach Out and Read parents said "Reading to my son will make a difference in how he does in school. I want to do that for him."

Finally, shaping the path. Many of the families that Reach Out and Read serves do not have any books at home. By giving each child a new developmentally-appropriate book to take home with them at each of 10 medical checkups from infancy, we provide the tools necessary to implement the change. For those parents, whose first language is not English, we offer books in 12 different languages, and books can even be useful for parents who don't read - we encourage them to talk about the story that the pictures tell. We are also partnering with the Institute of Museum and Library Services to encourage partnerships between Reach Out and Read sites and their local libraries, to expand the selection of books available for families to read aloud.

It is encouraging to read a book that has received accolades for its proposal of a framework that is powerful in creating transformative change, and to see that the Reach Out and Read model has all of the characteristics required. This is substantiated by research showing that parents served by Reach Out and Read are up to four times more likely to read aloud to their children. By continuing to promote parental engagement through reading aloud, and expanding our program to reach more children, Reach Out and Read can bring about the change in parenting practice that will have a powerful impact on their children's, and our society's future. 

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Written by Nikki Shearman at 08:05

Reach Out and Read Improves Family and Child Health Outcomes through Primary Care

New article "The Elephant in the Clinic" examines the multifaceted role of Reach Out and Read in the promotion of early literacy and family well-being through primary healthcare.
Written by Nikki Shearman at 12:05

Reach Out and Read has a Prescription for Success

IMLS marquee

Ed. Note: This blog was originally posted by UpNext, the Official Blog of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The original post can be viewed here.

Reach Out and Read is pleased to announce the launch of our Prescription for Success Toolkit, designed to support collaborations between libraries, museums, and Reach Out and Read program sites, natural partners that have a collective impact on the lives of young children. 

In January 2015, we embarked on a yearlong project, Prescription for Success, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The project is aimed at helping more families benefit from museum and library services that foster literacy development in young children. As a national nonprofit organization comprised of doctors, who promote early childhood literacy, Reach Out and Read has deep and broad relationships within the medical community. Prescription for Success has leveraged these connections to explore new ways doctors and their staffs can collaborate with museums and libraries.

Waiting_roomReach Out and Read is a nonprofit organization that gives books to children at pediatric checkups, and encourages families to read aloud to their infants and toddlers. For many of the low-income families that we serve, this is the first book in the home. Encouraging families to make use of local libraries and museums extends the impact of our program, giving them opportunities to read more books together, and to spend time enjoying library and museum activities. And library and museum staff can reinforce our message that engaging with young children through reading and playing together helps foster healthy brain development that gives them the best start in life.

Conversely, Reach Out and Read can further the special role that museums and libraries have in meeting the needs of America's youngest learners and their caregivers. With unparalleled access to young children through pediatric checkups, we are able to open the door to libraries and museums for many families, especially those struggling on a low-income, who might otherwise not know the value of these institutions.

IMLS_Rx_Pad The Prescription for Success Toolkit is a compilation of best practices learned from a survey of current state and local partnerships between Reach Out and Read, libraries, and museums. It provides ideas and resources for those who currently, or would like to, work together.

The toolkit encourages local libraries, museums, and Reach Out and Read program sites to open conversations with one another to explore common interests and learn about one another to build trust and community. It suggests ways they can support one another, such as clinics prescribing visits to the library using a prescription pad, libraries distributing Reach Out and Read materials or helping to create literacy-rich waiting rooms at Reach Out and Read clinics. Links to materials and resources and examples of successful established partnerships help with collaborations.

Written by Nikki Shearman at 12:00

Reach Out and Read Expands to Serve Infants from Birth to Six Months

Reach Out and Read doctors are starting to guide parents about the importance of talking, singing, reading and playing with their babies as early as the newborn checkup.

0-6 month 1Our organization has traditionally promoted the importance of reading aloud to children aged 6 months through 5 years. Reach Out and Read was founded in 1989 to take advantage of the unique opportunity that pediatricians have to affect the development, as well as the health, of the children they serve, especially those from low-income communities. A simple model was established of giving books to children and advice to families about the benefits of reading aloud together starting at the 6-month pediatric checkup. This reflected a tactical awareness that a 6-month old child can sit up on a parent's lap, and begin to grab and move the pages of a board book.

 However, advances in our understanding of early childhood development over the last 25 years have shown us that it is essential to encourage parents to engage with their infants right from birth. The first six months of life is a period of rapid brain development that does not occur at any other time, and is a critical window when parental responsiveness can shape a child's development (for more details, please read our previous blog post).  Accordingly, in 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement recommending literacy promotion in primary care starting at birth.

In recognition of this, the Reach Out and Read leadership has announced a move to start the program earlier, such that it will now officially serve children from birth through 5 years.

"We believe that this will help us to do our job more effectively with families, bring us clearly into alignment with current scientific thought and best practices, and help us partner more effectively with other organizations in the field" explained Brian Gallagher, Executive Director of Reach Out and Read.

0-6 month 2

Reach Out and Read Medical Advisors have urged the 21,000 healthcare providers practicing the program to start recommending to parents the importance of talking, singing, reading and playing with their babies as early as the newborn visit. Materials, such as our popular Developmental Milestones chart, have been revised to reflect the change, and training will support the program expansion. 

"We are considering carefully and seriously how best to get guidance to parents during those complicated, joyous, and sometimes overwhelming months when they are learning to care for their new babies." said Perri Klass, Reach Out and Read National Medical Director. "We want Reach Out and Read providers to use those formative early visits in the most helpful, practical, developmentally appropriate, supportive ways, helping parents develop the responsive, positive, language-rich interactions, which should surround babies from the very beginning."

Written by Nikki Shearman at 09:00

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