HealthLeader

An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Their First Teacher

Early childhood campaign emphasizes critical role parents and caregivers play in young children’s future success

Their First Teacher

When you were little, do you recall how you learned new words and expressions? Probably not, but your early childhood was one of the most important times in your life in terms of your cognitive growth.

Studies have shown that 80 percent of brain development occurs within the first five years of life. Early childhood experts say those first few years can go a long way in getting children ready for school and predicting future academic success. However, not all families have the resources or make the time to effectively prepare their children.

“It’s a chronic problem across the country,” says Susan Landry, PhD, a nationally recognized expert in early childhood education and founder and director of the Children’s Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). “More resources and attention should be focused to educate parents about the importance of this critical period in their children’s lives.”

A current statewide campaign in Texas is helping to bridge this knowledge gap. Known as “Little Texans. Big Futures,” this campaign is inspired by the recently created Infant, Toddler and 3-Year-Old Early Learning Guidelines, developed in partnership with the Texas Early Learning Council by researchers at the Children’s Learning Institute, as well as two dozen stakeholders throughout Texas.

The purpose of these guidelines is to help Texans understand what very young children should know and be able to do at different points in their development. In addition, they provide tools for parents and other caregivers to support early growth in the following categories: physical health and motor development, social and emotional development, language and communication development and cognitive development. 

In addition to providing access to the full version of these guidelines, the “Little Texans. Big Futures.” campaign website (www.littletexans.org) features shorter versions and posters divided into different age ranges. The website also includes resources on how to choose the best care for young children, information for developmental delays and television and radio spots that are currently playing across the state. Visitors to the website are encouraged to download the early learning guidelines and share resources and other materials with expecting and new parents.

“I have studied early childhood learning for more than 25 years," says Landry. “Although we continue to add new knowledge to this important field of study, there are some facts about early childhood everyone should understand.”

Warm, responsive interaction is crucial

Landry and other researchers at the Children’s Learning Institute teach parents and caregivers across the nation how to strengthen the bond with their children during both infancy and toddlerhood. Through this work, they have found that parents who engage with their young children in a warm and responsive interactional style leads to stronger development in cognitive, language, academic and social skills.

So, what does it actually mean to use a warm and responsive interactional style? The Children’s Learning Institute offers the following tips for parents and other caregivers:

Always display an affectionate and nurturing tone toward your child. Respond to your child’s signals (e.g., gestures, verbalizations, facial expressions) by using a warm tone of voice and facial expressions, appropriate pacing and words he or she can understand. Do not use abrupt or curt tones of voice or comments that are not accepting of your child’s needs. When you are warm and responsive, your child will trust others to help.

Accurately read your child's verbal and nonverbal signals to help base your response. Children give positive and negative signals through words, gestures and body language. They may talk, point, smile, frown or turn away at any given moment. To make things more difficult, some signals are clear while others are not clear at all. It is important to look at facial expressions, body position and what has just happened to help you figure out what your child is feeling or thinking. When your child does signal, respond promptly and sensitively, a method otherwise known as “contingent responsiveness.” Adjust your tone of voice, facial expression and pacing to fit your child’s needs.

Share some control with your child rather than being rigid. Give your child choices and encourage independence. This is part of “sharing control,” which helps children learn to be responsible, cooperative and discover their own interests. Let your child try doing things on his or her own and give help only when needed. Also, allow your child to have a chance to practice being “in control” by playing a game the way he or she wants to play.

Always remember that your child is a unique individual with his or her own needs, ideas and feelings. Responding promptly and sensitively tells your child his or her needs and interests are important. Children learn to trust that their needs will be met. Responding sensitively helps them become faster learners, show more motivation to explore and learn on their own.  Using sensitive behavior and contingent responding will help create a positive relationship with your child that you can build on in the future. This will help your children become more cooperative and feel good about themselves.

Talk to your child using rich language and encourage communicative exchanges and problem-solving. There are few indicators, if any, that are more predictive of a young child's school readiness than their language and communication skills. Beginning in infancy, the young brain is programmed to rapidly acquire language skills. Parents teach children to use and understand words by labeling toys and actions; talking to them about things they are interested in; and through reading. Ask your child questions while you read. Explaining new words and responding to what he or she says helps your child pay better attention, learn more and have more fun with reading. When you help children maintain their interest, they do not have to use energy to shift their attention to something else.

Young children learn through play. They are processing new information every single day. They pick up items and drop them over and over, not to annoy you, but because they are learning about cause and effect. They play with toys, books and the entire world. Exploration and fun are the ways they acquire knowledge and skills.

In the end, caregiver sensitivity matters. How parents and other caregivers respond to the needs of young children has everything to do with how those young children grow, develop and thrive. It signals to them the world is a safe place where they should feel free to explore, learn and grow. When parents and caregivers create stressful or unresponsive environments, they demonstrate that trust and safety are in short supply.

Learning all the time

Parents should use these strategies and behaviors in everyday activities to help their children continually learn new skills. Children learn throughout the day, not just at special playtimes. Feeding, bathing, diapering and dressing your child are good times to help build learning skills. During these activities, you can help your child learn by being responsive and maintaining his or her interest. Making eye contact with your child, imitating his or her sounds, demonstrating actions and playing games like “peek-a-boo” can help make these activities fun.

Examples of learning opportunities during everyday activities include:

  • At bath time, you can name parts of your child’s body as you wash him or her.
  • When you feed your child, you can talk about foods, colors, tastes and things like spoons, cups and bowls. You can also read your child’s signals to see what he or she likes. Also, ask your child to see if he or she is ready for more food!
  • During dressing time, you can talk about where each kind of clothing goes and what it looks like. Let your child touch and hold his or her clothes, or hold a toy while you are dressing him or her. 

This all sounds like a lot of work, but as a parent or caregiver, you should know that you are never alone. As you continue to build a natural learning foundation for your child, make an effort to work with others who can have a positive influence on his or her development. For example, once your child enters a prekindergarten program at a school or child care center, take an active role in learning about your child's new classrooms and build a bond with the teacher or caretaker. By doing so, their teachers are more likely to communicate proactively with you and help you complement what they are learning in the classroom at home.

“Warm, responsive parents who introduce language and play early into their children's lives are preparing their children for success in school and in life,” says Landry. “This is a message that must be more prevalent in our society, which is why I am so excited to be a part of the ‘Little Texans. Big Futures.’ campaign.”

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