The Most Important Number in America Is Learning Readiness at Age Four
January 11, 2019
The most important number in America for our future as a country is the percentage of our children from every group who are learning ready at age four.
We will be badly damaged as a country if we do not reduce the learning gaps in our schools.
The learning gaps in our high schools today across the country are huge — and those gaps have not closed in 20 years. We have fewer than 40 percent of our students who are able to read at grade level in high school today — and the total number of students in our schools who cannot read is growing every year.
Canada has more than 80 percent of their students reading at grade level.
We should and could have learning levels in our schools that are as good or better than the levels in Canada. But that higher level of learning will not happen for us as a country until we change a couple of things that we do for our children before they actually get to school.
We all need to understand the extremely important fact that those damaging learning gaps are not created by our schools.
Those gaps are created by the direct interactions each of our children have with their world in those first key years for each child before they actually get to school.
We all need to know and understand that those major learning gaps in our schools are created by the fact that only a very small percentage of our children are actually learning ready when they arrive at their first day of kindergarten.
Far too many of our children are not ready to learn in an academic setting at that point in time because the learning support process that all children need to build neuron connections in their brain did not start and happen in those very first key years for each child.
The neuron connection process that builds our brains actually starts at birth for each child. Connections that are built for life are based very directly and immediately on the interactions each child has with their world in those first weeks, months and years of life.
The children who are not learning ready on their first day of school start behind the kids who actually are learning ready at that point in their lives — and we know from 30 years of data and we know from clear and painful experience in thousands of schools across the country that the children who start behind at that point in their education process overwhelmingly stay behind for their entire educational lives.
Those students who start kindergarten behind other children and who are not sufficiently ready to learn at that very important and very early point in their lives do not catch up.
That is a painful, sad, jarring, shocking, unpleasant, unpopular, functionally important, but sometimes anger-provoking and sometimes politically unfortunate and politically incorrect thing to say in a number of settings for many understandable reasons — but we now have 30 years of extremely consistent failure in closing our school learning gaps in multiple well-intentioned programs in schools across the country to prove beyond question that it is substantively and consistently true.
We have failed to close those significant gaps in our schools for a very long time and we need to recognize that we will not close them now or ever by continuing to do what we have been doing in all of those schools and hoping that the outcome will be different in the future because we really want a different outcome to happen.
That process and that reality can now be changed for us as a country.
We finally have information that can lead us to a future where those learning gaps do not exist in all of those schools.
Knowledge is power.
We have knowledge now that can give us the power and the ability to create a better future for our country and for our children. We finally understand exactly why we have failed to close those gaps in all of those schools and settings and we finally know what we can do to change that reality for us as a country.
Neuron connections in the brain of each child determine which path each child is on.
We now have a much better understanding of that reality about neuron connections and we know now how to use that information to help each of our children.
We finally understand that those decades of failure to close the learning gaps in our schools are the result of relative neuron connection levels in the brain of our children and our failures to close those gaps are not the result of things that are being done in all of those settings by our schools or by the teachers and staff in our schools.
We finally understand what is happening in children’s brains in the very first years of each child’s life — and we now know that the learning gaps in our schools are caused by what happens in that brain development process that happens at an individual and personal level for each and every child in the very first days and weeks of life, long before they arrive at any school.
Brain development processes in the first weeks, first months, and first years of life for each child build neuron connections by the billions in the brains of our children.
Those processes that build connections in brains are the same for all sets of children. The children who have the most connections built in the first months and years of life use those connections to support their learning processes for life and those children stay ahead of the children who have had fewer neurons connected in the first months and years of their life.
Biology is destiny for each child.
Biological destiny is set in a very functional and very personal way at a very early age for each child.
Age four is an important year.
The children who are ahead of other children by age four stay ahead of the children who have fallen behind by age four for very basic biological reasons.
They don’t stay ahead because they are better people and or because they work harder at brain growth or learning than other students in their kindergarten or school or because they are more committed to learning at some ethical or philosophical level. They stay ahead because they have billions of additional neuron connections in their brains at that point in time and the major opportunity for neuron growth for all children from every group happens in the first weeks, months and years of life for each child.
Our growing awareness and understanding of the relevant biological processes and time frames now teach us that the brains of children from every group change just before age four and that opportunity to make those neuron connections in those ways at those levels diminishes significantly at that time in their life.
The biology and those key biological time frames are the same for all children and they are the same for every group of children. The opportunities to connect billions and even trillions of neurons are the same for each group of children in those first days, weeks, months, and years of life.
To make the situation functionally more difficult for each child who has fallen behind in those first three years, each child’s brain actually begins to purge itself of unused neuron connections at that point in time. That purging process is needed for the brain of each child to organize itself — but one unfortunate consequence of that time frame is that the children who have fallen behind by the time the brain begins that purging process simply do not have the functional and biological opportunity to fully catch up later.
Everyone who cares about the future of our children and the future of our country need to understand the significance of those processes and time frames. Pathways and life trajectories are put into play in those time frames for every child. Those can be very negative trajectories for too many children. That extremely important combination of brain development factors tends to create major difficulties for the children who have fallen behind at that point in their lives.
There continue to be opportunities to make neuron connections in the brain for every person after that point, but the opportunity to make the vast number of connections that enhance basic learning for each child is no longer in place after age four.
The fact that we have numbers of people who have fallen behind by that age does not mean that we should give up on any children regardless of how well they have done up to that point.
We need to help everyone.
We need to do everything we can to create the best and most useful education experience for every child after age four regardless of their neuron connection capacity at age four or five. Education offers value and benefit to every child — regardless of the level of neuron connections that a child built in the first key years when those connections happen so easily for each child.
We need to know, understand and appreciate the fact that education for everyone after that point can make all children better informed, wiser, more emotionally grounded and secure, more capable and more knowledgeable on multiple levels and we should do our best as parents and as educators to help each and every child benefit from the foundation of their own lives and from their own ability to learn at every age.
But we need to recognize and understand that the key and wonderful opportunity that has existed since the moment of birth to build an exploding number of neuron connections in each child’s brain is no longer in place and is not happening in the same way after that very early point in time for each child.
It is much more difficult to help children with those aspects of their brain strength and capability after age four.
Almost No One Knew That Those Processes and Time Frames Affect Each and Every Child
We have been ignorant as a society about those key processes and time frames.
That functional reality and that very functionally useful understanding about the fact that those brain development time frames and processes exist for each child and the awareness that those universal biological processes very directly and individually shape the life of each and every child in those critical time frames is actually relatively new information for us as a country.
Sadly — almost no one in our communities, or our families or our schools who should have known that information actually knew that extremely important information at any useful level until very recently.
A relatively few people in our research settings actually have had a high and growing level of awareness and knowledge of those issues and processes at earlier levels for some years — and The Institute of Medicine actually wrote a wonderful piece called “From Neurons To Neighborhoods” that outlined the whole process over a decade ago — but that information did not even get in even a vague and generic way to most caregivers for children and families in America and it has not guided our educational policy or our resource allocations as a country in any useful ways.
That absolutely foundational and extremely important information about our children did not reach our education people or our public policy thinkers or our relevant decision makers at any level that influenced either our policies or our behaviors.
Sadly and very dysfunctionally as a public policy reality, the researchers who actually did have that knowledge in a number of research programs and settings wrote great research papers on those topics but they did not teach what they knew about the huge importance of the first months and years of life for brain growth in any organized, deliberate, intentional, effectively publicized way to the people in our society and our communities who could have used that information in many effective ways to help our children in the last decades.
Because of that failure to share and teach that information to all relevant parties in intentional ways, the vast majority of key people in our education world and in our public policy development processes who should have known that extremely important and foundational information simply did not know it.
Some people in some research settings who knew that information chose not to share it outside of academic settings because they did not want to be perceived to be either critical or judgmental relative to anyone’s approach to parenting.
That ignorance on those processes has done highly unintentional damage to large numbers of people.
Disparities between groups have resulted from that information not being shared in effective and useful ways with everyone who should have known it.
We have a wide range of economic and functional and sometimes even legal inter group disparities and inter group discrimination and prejudice factors that have been getting worse for a number of groups in our country.
We have major disparities in income levels, economic status levels, education levels and employment levels — between groups — and none of the people who have been looking at those disparities have had any clue about the fact that a number of those disparities are deeply and directly anchored in these very basic and universal early childhood neuron connection processes for our various groups of children as part of their core functionality and causality.
The issues and links can be extremely practical and painfully obvious once they are perceived to exist.
It is much harder to do well economically without a job and it is much harder to get a job and make a living if you can’t read or do calculations and if you have dropped out of school.
We should make a commitment to address some of those disparities in all of those areas by creating a high level of learning readiness at age four for every child that will put people from every group on a much better path for education, employment, and health.
We Need Universal Knowledge About Neuron Connectivity Processes and Time Frames for All Relevant People
Everyone needs to understand these processes and opportunities.
We need to share the most important and useful information about brain development and neuron connections in the first weeks and months of life for each child with everyone who should know it — and we need to share it with all relevant people in clear and effective ways now so it can begin to affect the lives of children who are being born today.
This is the perfect time to be sharing that information.
The science that supports those opportunities is getting better every day.
The underlying science for brain development of children is moving into a golden age. Brilliant people in multiple settings are exploding and expanding the science of childhood development to amazing new levels. The truth is that we are seeing an explosion in that brain development science for children today in multiple research settings and those new learnings in all of those settings about brain development and emotional growth in children actually dwarf all of our previous knowledge about those issues.
We know more than we have ever known about what developmental processes are exploding in the brains of our children in the first weeks, months and years of life and what we are learning is giving us information that can transform the lives of children and change life trajectories for large numbers of people in extremely positive ways when we use that information to help our children.
We need to change the fact that no one is teaching that information effectively to either parents or educators and we need to use that information in organized and effective ways in every community to save and redirect our failing schools.
We knew that we were not closing the learning gaps in our schools because that data about communities not closing those learning gaps is public and painfully obvious. But we did not know as a society and we did not know as educators or as communities why we were failing at making those gaps disappear, so we did not do things to remedy those situations and problems.
Neuron connection processes start early — and we need to use that information early in each life to help every child.
Early is early. Some key processes actually start a bit before birth. Some very promising research is even beginning now to reach back in a number of settings into both pre-birth development situations and to pre-birth processes for each child.
We need to feel a sense of urgency about those time frames, now that we have a better sense of the changes that happen for each child after year three and now that we recognize why all of those programs that have worked so hard to help children who have fallen behind to catch up have had such unfortunate results.
We need everyone to know and understand that brain development changes that happen in every child from every group at age four will keep children older than four years old from developing the billions of neuron connections in their brain that will allow them to catch up with the children who developed more extensive connections in the first months and years of their life.
Knowing that catching up is functionally impossible for far too many children after the opportunity for those first years has passed is grim, unfortunate, powerful, painful, often disliked, and extremely useful information that we all need to have in order to do the right things with each and every child born in America to make learning gaps disappear now for our schools and for our children.
We need to use that information to cause us to put support processes in place that create learning readiness levels for every child in those time frames when we can offer the most benefit for each child.
We Have Many More Children Being Born Into the Low End of The Learning Gap
We need to deal with this problem now — because it is getting worse.
This is not a static situation or a simple extension of our old problems in that area. The unfortunate reality we face now is that our learning gaps in our schools will be damaging more people and will be damaging more people in even more ways in our country because we have significantly larger numbers of people being born into settings with lower achievement levels.
We need people to take a clear eyed and honest look at what is happening in many of our communities because the situation is getting worse in many settings and the long-term consequences of having fewer people who are learning will be very damaging at multiple levels.
We have a growing number of schools where fewer than 20 percent of the children can read at grade level at age 15 and we have some schools where less than 15 percent of the students in some groups are either reading at grade level or doing mathematical computations at grade level.
The consequences of those learning gaps will shape our future as a country and it will put multiple communities onto a path of future economic failure and into a future of growing inter group anger, conflict and division.
We are now seeing large numbers of children who will not be able to do calculations or read at age 15, and that will result in people with those problems not being employable and it will result in large numbers of people having major health problems and going to prison.
We disproportionately send high school drop outs from all groups to prison. The percentage of African American Males who have dropped out of school and who are in their 30s and who are in prison now exceeds 60 percent.
That compares to roughly 10 percent of African American males in their 30s who graduated from high school who are in prison.
We imprison more people than any other country in the world by a wide margin — with seven times more people in prison per capita than Canada — and we disproportionally imprison both minority Americans and people who have dropped out of school.
Age four sets the pathway and trajectory for those children. The path to jail begins at age four for too many children.
We know that to be true, because we can now predict with a high level of accuracy which of our students is headed for not being able to read in high school and who will be on a high likelihood path to being imprisoned based on their learning readiness levels at age four.
To change that pathway to both prison and to not being employable, we need to what we need to do to help all children connect neurons by the billions in those first weeks, months and years of life so that our high schools are a time of learning and not a time of punishment and incarceration for those children.
The Percentage of Children Who Are Learning Ready at Age Four Is a Very Important Number and Should Be a National Goal and Priority
Age four is a key age and a key time for all of those processes.
That process and that developmental reality for our children is why the percentage of children in our country who are learning ready at age four is actually the single most important number in American education today.
It is also why the percentage of children in every community who are learning ready at age four is extremely important for us as a society at multiple levels.
The percentage of children who are learning ready by age four will functionally determine future levels of employment and that percentage will create job capability realities for our national workforce.
Our aging population requires us to have learning ready people in very large numbers. We will need someone to do our work as our population ages and we will need and want people to be both caretakers and taxpayers for future years.
That number of children who are learning ready at age four will obviously determine whether we will have taxpayers in the future who be able to keep our Social Security and Medicare programs funded, or whether we will find those programs to be in even more financial trouble than they are now.
We want people to be taxpayers — not felons. We now know that age four is actually a highly functional cross roads point in life that will help determine which of those roles each person will be in for their adult lives.
To have a good future as a nation, we need to do whatever we need to do now to help guide people down the learning capability path to paychecks instead of prison. We can only close the learning gaps and get people headed for paychecks instead of prison if we focus on the years before age four and if we give every child the right sets of interactions to have neuron connectivity happening in those key months and years.
We need to recognize how important that topic is to us as a country and how big the problem of learning gaps deficiencies for growing numbers of people is now.
We prefer to hide from the issue in most settings — and many of our leaders have strongly preferred to pretend that those learning gaps do not exist as a threat or a reality or to ignore them entirely as leaders. The numbers relative to those performance levels by our students in all of those schools cannot be debated, denied or accurately refuted — but they can clearly be ignored or even hidden by people who want to avoid dealing with them.
Many people from many groups and communities try hard to avoid looking at the actual and current learning gap numbers for our schools and some even refuse to talk about them when they are reported because most of our leaders do not have any useful way of discussing the issues.
Our news media usually tries not to write or talk about any of the learning gap issues — and when the annual reports about the learning gaps in our schools are made public, our media generally runs weakly constructed and poorly written stories that celebrate any tiny improvements that happen in learning gaps in any setting from year to year without being clear about the context for those numbers or discussing their implications for any group or setting.
The pattern is that local newspapers tend not to want to high lite or describe their local community low learning performance levels — and the pattern we see is that the other news media in each setting usually completely skips the story about local learning gaps entirely every year.
So we do not have an informed public on those issues.
The annual learning gap information for all of our school settings is both undisputed and available — but it is not used or discussed in any public ways in most settings.
Schools, in particular, are often not happy about having the learning gap closure failures pointed out every year, and many frustrated school leaders try to present the data for their schools in ways that create at least the illusion of progress on at least some part of the situation.
Most schools have no idea that their learning gaps were created by the learning readiness problems for their students in the first three years of life, so they do not mention that data or explain the process. Many schools have tutors, special programs, various kinds of group and individual coaching, and a wide variety of extremely well intentioned and sometimes well publicized attempts to close the gaps, but the annual reporting about those programs for a couple of decades has been that all of those good-hearted programs have failed to make the gaps disappear or meaningfully shrink in all of those settings.
Look at the reading scores for the schools in whatever city you are in. There are huge gaps everywhere with very low scores for growing numbers of students on the low ends of the gaps. And you can see that clearly from the reports.
Look at each community and look at each group in each community.
We are not doing well as a nation on that agenda. Having less than Forty percent of our students able to read at grade level is a frightening number, and it is getting worse.
The painful reality is that we have growing groups of children in many of our communities who have as few as 20 and 30 percent of the children who are learning at grade levels this year.
For some groups, only 15 percent are reading at grade level today.
We need to look at those numbers and we need to recognize what they mean.
They will not be able to find jobs. Life is difficult without employment.
The sad and extremely important truth is that we have done almost nothing as a nation in any intentional way in almost any settings to help each of our children from all of our groups be learning ready before age four when that ability and that capability are so important to their lives and to their personal education success or failure.
We failed to work on those issues because we did not understand the basic biological processes that create learning ability in our children. Ignorance of key brain development processes for our children created those failures.
We Used to Blame Those Learning Gaps on Our Schools
Our beliefs on some of those issues were painfully, dangerously and dysfunctionally wrong.
We used to blame our inability to close the learning gaps on our schools.
Many people also blamed teachers for the fact that those gaps in our schools have not closed.
That blame was misplaced.
Those gaps are not caused by either teachers or schools.
We now know that learning gaps we see in all of our schools directly reflect the neuron connectivity levels that exist for each child in each of those schools — and our schools and our teachers actually have nothing to do with making those neuron connections in the brain for each child.
Instead of blaming teachers and schools for those learning gaps, we need to support parents and families and communities in doing what we need to do with each child to keep those gaps from happening in those key days, weeks, months, and years. We need all parents and all families to know that all children from all groups go through a basic biological process of brain development and neuron connectivity in the first weeks, months, and years of life.
We need everyone relevant to children to know that all children go through the same basic processes in those same time frames — and the impact of those processes on each child determine the life path for individual learning and educational success of failure for each child — and we need to use that information to create the right support levels for each child.
We need to set Learning Readiness by Age Four goals in every school district and every community, and we need all of our relevant programs for children in each community to help us achieve those goal in each setting.
We need to recognize how individual those processes are for each child. Neuron connections are made for each child in a very individual process that is tied directly to the direct interactions that happen directly and personally in that time period for each child.
It is a very simple, very direct and very individual and very personal process and we need everyone to know exactly what kinds of interactions create those connections for each child
The process can be easy to do for both children and the adults interacting with them.
We are clearly wired to learn to learn. Neurons are generally very easy to connect in our children’s brains in ways that are triggered by very basic interactions that we have in those time periods with each child because our children tend to be eager to have those interactions with the adults in their lives and love to have those interactions with the trusted adults in their lives.
Children are neurologically predisposed to having those neuron connections made. Simply talking to a child can actually create billions of connections — and talking can be done in any setting by any relevant and trusted adults with each child.
Talking Directly to a Child Builds Billions of Neuron Links
Neuron connections create our learning reality for each child and for every school and we now actually know how to make neurons connect.
Interactions are key.
Interactions are golden.
Basic interactions by adults with each child create neuron linkages by the billions in those key weeks, months and years for each child and talking is one of the very best interactions for causing neurons to connect.
Talking and interacting directly with adults in those very first days, weeks, months, and years of life cause those neuron linkages to happen by the billions for each child. Simply talking to a child for even a very short period of time in those months and years creates billions of connections.
Talking repeatedly to a child in an interactive way can create trillions of connections.
Reading is also a highly effective tool for making those connections.
Reading to a child also creates billions of connections with each reading session — and reading also adds levels of cognitive ability and emotional support for each child.
Responding directly and responsively to a child in even the first days and weeks of life creates billions of neuron connections and builds basic interactions skills for each child.
The Harvard Center for The Developing Child and a dozen other great research programs are all teaching us how important those interactions are for each child.
We actually had people in positions of authority who gave us bad information. Some people who were guiding parents taught that those very first time periods in the life of each child were not important and some said that those first months were almost entirely irrelevant for the brain development and the learning ability levels for each child.
That was bad science. We had experts who did not think the first months and years were important and they gave bad information to parents. Many parents in a number of settings were even advised against having extensive interactions with their children and grandchildren in the first weeks, months and years of life.
A great many people have believed that education began at kindergarten. Too many people believed that the times before kindergarten were just place fillers for generic survival and general development.
That was wrong.
We now know that kindergarten is actually too late by several years as the first and foundational step in the education process and learning development process for each child. That process starts in the first weeks and months of life for every child.
Neuron Connections — Built by the Billions — and Not Kindergarten, Determine the Learning Readiness Levels for Each Child
We now know that the brains of our children from every group are ready for massive developmental opportunities at birth — and we now know that the children from every group who have direct interactions with adults in the very first months and years of life literally build billions and trillions of neuron connections that will then serve each child for life.
The children who do not have those direct interactions with adults in those weeks, months, and years of life do not have those connections in their brains at that early point in their lives.
That neuron connection purging process that happens at age four for each child was not known to the people who created and ran our education world and our school systems. People believed that the opportunity to build neuron connections in each child’s brain was the same at five years old and ten years old and even at fifteen years old as it was at two years old.
That is, unfortunately, not true.
Kindergarten is a wonderful thing for children. Kindergarten can add real value to their lives — but both kindergarten and pre-kindergarten are too late to close those learning gaps for our schools because of the major brain process changes that happen before age four for each of our children.
We should not be critical of anyone in our communities or in our education system for doing so many things wrong in our efforts to close those learning gaps for the past couple of decades. We did not understand those brain developments and learning capability growth processes and time frames very well until relatively recently, and so our educators did not change any of our practices in our communities in ways that could help solve those problems during that time frame.
When important components of medical science and when almost all of our education theorists and practitioners and when our most relevant education development theories and beliefs were also either wrong or completely ignorant about the relative importance of those first months and years for the education experience and the learning capabilities of each child, then we can’t expect that parents, families, communities or even our teachers and our child care workers would have somehow gotten the process and that science right.
We need everyone to know that science — and we need everyone to also understand that the process is a very individual process for each child.
Brain Development and Neuron Connections Happen at an Individual Level for Each Child
We all need to understand how individual to each child that process and reality is.
This is not a group process. That is an important point to understand.
To change the future for our schools and our children, we need to collectively and clearly understand that those neuron connection processes happen individually for each child. They are not collective or group processes. They happen individually, personally, situationally and directly in those key months and years for each child.
We are sometimes confused by that particular point.
It does not happen by group.
It happens by child.
We do tend to measure and talk about the current learning gaps in our schools by group. That measurement of current learning levels by group can be useful at some levels — but it can also be an unfortunately misleading measurement because the actual gaps we see are individual measurements for each child. The processes of neuron connection building happen individually for each child in those key months and years and neuron connections do not happen for groups of children as groups.
When the learning level scores in our schools seem to measure groups as they are generally reported, we need to know why that happens and how to use that information.
We need to maintain an awareness and an understanding that people from our various groups often have basic patterns of interactions in their lives that can sometimes create similar neuron connection processes outcomes for the children in their group — but those similar outcomes are actually a collective measure of the similar interactions within a group for each child and they are not a measure of the group itself at any level.
Neuron development could not be more individual for each child. The interactions that happen for each child set up those neuron connections for each child on a very individual basis.
The extremely high potential for children from each group to make great levels of neuron connections in those key weeks, months and years at the personal and individual level needs to be understood, appreciated and used to help all children.
We Should Have Stars from Every Group
We have the potential to do wonderful things for all children, when we understand those opportunities.
We can create a nation of learning level stars from all groups because that capability for star performance exists for children from all groups and that potential to create learning stars from all groups directly depends on children from all groups having the right sets of interactions as individual children in those key weeks, months, and years of their lives.
We know from the new science that each child from every group has a wonderful opportunity to build billions of and even trillions of neuron connections in those first months and years — and we know exactly what we need to do relative to interacting with each child to make those years very beneficial for each child.
We need leaders from every group to support and enable whatever processes are needed to teach this science to every family in their group and to support having all children in their group being ready to learn at age four. We have an extensive number of resources that can be used now to both teach that information to leaders and to have leaders able to share the information with their group.
Harvard is doing great work.
The Harvard Center for The Developing Child is one of several great academic programs that have been learning this information and are now sharing it with the rest of the world. Harvard is taking a lead role on a wide range of child development issues, and people going to their websites can be informed and taught at extremely important levels.
Columbia, Stanford, The University of Washington, The University of California at several sites, and a dozen other great research programs are also all now focusing on the huge developmental potential for the first weeks, months and years of life for each child.
We need that information from all of those great sites to rise above those academic settings, and we need to use it to both guide education policy for our cities, states and nation — and we need to use it to help every family give the best start in life for every child.
The excellent program on toxic stress led by Dr. Ross Thompson at UC Davis is anchored in a solid understanding of the overall opportunity that exists for every child.
The brilliant work done by Dr. Elizabeth Kuhl at the University of Washington in her brain science laboratory also is based on an important overall context for the importance of those first years.
The extremely important work by Dr. Beatrice Beebe and her researchers at Columbia University on the importance of the first 100 days of life for every child shakes up and completely re-educates all of the people in both health care and education who believed that the first few months were unimportant and even irrelevant from a developmental perspective for each child.
Dr. Beebe and her brilliant team can measure a child at 100 days old and can predict with extreme accuracy which children will be in trouble and which will be doing relatively well at three years, five years and even older.
What we know from all of those programs and from that exploding body of great science is that neuron connections and the related brain development in the first weeks, months and years of life are extremely important for every child — and we now know with solid science and with extreme and even painful clarity why we have failed in thousands of schools to close learning gaps using approaches that focused on helping children when they are 15 years old.
Talking and Reading to Children Create Neuron Links by the Billions
Now that we have that information and understand that science — we need to use it to help every child.
We know how to make neurons connect for each child. We need to use that information for every child.
We can finally end the learning gaps in our schools by doing very basic things with our very young children. through family members, baby sitters, caretakers, and other adults who interact with each child.
We know what works to help every child.
Talk. Read. Count. Sing.
Very basic interactions create learning readiness in extremely effective ways.
Talking is a very powerful tool.
We can get people to talk to children everywhere.
We know that just talking to a child builds billions of neuron connections.
We know that reading to a child also builds billions of neuron connections and also helps the brain understand symbolic and cognitive meanings.
Counting is also a key development tool that can be done by anyone in any setting. We know that simple basic counting with a child helps build numerical capability that lasts each child for life.
We know that far too many children today have no one or almost no one talking, no one reading, and no one counting with them in those first key weeks, months, and years, and those children do not have the neuron connections at age three that give them the foundation they need for successful learning for all of their years in school.
Those children who do not have those connections end up unable to read, and unable to function well in school and they are on the low end of the learning gap in their learning levels at age fifteen.
We do not want that to happen.
So we need to put in place a very effective and useful awareness program for all parents, and we need to use the tools that already exist in many of our communities to provide that level of parenting support in those first weeks, months, and years when it triggers billions of neuron connections for each child.
We Can Use Medicaid to Help Children Be Ready to Learn
We do not need to start from scratch in that effort or that strategy as a country. We have a resource that we can use very quickly to help us achieve our learning gap reduction goals.
We can fix a major part of that problem of our children not being learning ready in an organized way as a country by repurposing and rechanneling a functional reality that we now have for majority of our new births in our country. We actually have a tool available that can be focused on achieving that goal for most children being born in America today.
Medicaid is now the single largest program for supporting births in America.
We can decide to use Medicaid to create learning readiness levels for our children because more than half of the births this year in our nation will be into our Medicaid program.
More than half of all mothers who give birth in America this year will be Medicaid Mothers.
That very important and historic fact gives us a great opportunity to help our children.
We can make learning readiness a Medicaid Priority. The health benefits and the economic benefits of achieving that goal make it a highly productive use of Medicaid resources.
We can start by making the whole issue of neuron connectivity part of the knowledge base for American parents, because we know that far too many mothers today do not know about the opportunity that exists to connect neurons and strengthen baby brains.
A high percentage of Medicaid mothers do not know that process now. That lack of awareness for those Medicaid mothers makes sense, because we now know that most American mothers do not know the science described in this proposal — and Medicaid mothers are not more likely than other mothers to somehow be aware of those processes and opportunities.
We can use our Medicaid programs and Medicaid processes to get information about neuron connection opportunities and tools to every mother and every father and every family through the Medicaid caregivers and through a new generation of well-designed Medicaid communications tools that can explain and teach all parents the learning readiness processes that strengthen the brain of every child.
Medicaid Should Support Having 80 Percent or More of Children Learning Ready by Age Four
We should ask every community in America to make learning readiness levels at age four a priority and a goal and we should use Medicaid as a tool to help all communities achieve that goal.
. Far too many cities today have high rates of unemployment, poor levels of learning functionality, and growing numbers of gangs and incarceration rates that all can be reduced if those cities had higher percentages of their children ready to learn when they were four years old. We need enlightened and well-informed mayors to support that agenda, and we need leaders from every group who want their group to do well to want their children to have high levels of readiness to learn at that crucial age.
We need to make that a collaborative and universal set of goals for all groups and settings. It would be good to have every community of every kind involved in the process of having 80 percent or more of our children to be ready to learn at age four.
We need to start with wisdom and a broad community awareness of the impact of those processes on our children.
We want everyone to understand the opportunity that exists for all of our children — and we need everyone to join us to help create better lives for our children by having them all be ready to learn at age four.
People can do that by helping in various ways that are relevant to their own lives and to the communities that they are part of.
Goal setting in each setting can help us all both understand the process and create alignment and collaboration toward the goals.
We should set the very explicit and clear goal of having 80 percent or more of our children in every setting be learning ready by age four — and we should ask every community and every school system in America to understand why that is an important goal and to share in achieving that goal.
Eighty percent of children being ready to learn at age four is a legitimate goal.
It is a stretch goal but it is a very attainable stretch goal.
Currently, we have about 40 percent of our children who are learning ready at kindergarten. That number reflects the average number of students who are reading at grade level and who are doing mathematics at grade level at age 15 in our schools.
We should set a national goal of doubling that number. We should make having 80 percent or more of our children learning ready by age four be both a national priority and a target to be used by each community for helping their own children.
Some groups do better than that now. That 80 percent goal is entirely possible to do — because it is being done today. Canada has more than 80 percent learning readiness. Eighty percent would be a huge improvement over where we are now on average as a nation — and it would be both attainable and measurable in every community as a functional goal for community planning and thinking.
Goals are good tools, because they help to structure thinking and because they encourage collective and mutually supported activity and involvement.
People will support a learning readiness goal when they understand what it is and why it is important.
All parents and families want their children to do well in life, so we should and will get significant family support in achieving that agenda and goal when we explain it clearly.
Families want their children to have jobs and to stay out of jail and to have good health. We should get solid support from families and communities in both setting that goal and then doing the things we need to do to achieve it.
People Can Do Things Directly to Help Children Achieve That Goal
Some of the things that need to be done to have children be learning ready are easy to do and can be done quickly in collaborative and aligned ways in a wide range of settings.
We know that reading builds strong brains.
We need books everywhere.
Books are affordable, functional, available, and we can ask each community to figure out how to get books to every family so that children’s books are available for every child.
We can come up with multiple programs to make books and even readers available to all children, if we set a goal for ourselves of having children all have access to books.
We need trusted messengers to communicate that information to all families — and we need to look at all of our existing child related programs to see how we can add that learning readiness goal to their agenda and thinking.
We have a number of good programs — like the WIC program that provides very useful nutrition advice and health counseling to most Medicaid mothers now — that can be expanded and partially repurposed to also support learning readiness programs for the children they serve.
WIC is almost universal, well trusted, well-staffed, and can be a perfect context for helping support improved readiness levels. WIC programs can both encourage reading, and hand out books.
The nurse family partnership programs that exist now in many communities can also be repurposed to add learning readiness formally to their skill sets.
Early head start already helps with those agendas. The regular Head Start program begins at age four after that prime neuron development prime window of the first three years of life is over for children — but early Head Start happens at very useful times for that process and can give us great support in achieving that goal.
We need our relevant leaders in every setting and every group on board.
We need mayors and governors and school superintendents and school boards to all understand this science and to lead their communities in achieving that 80 percent learning readiness goal by age four for their children.
Achieving that goal for our children should be a universal agenda and a shared process at multiple levels.
We should ask everyone in all settings to both help make it happen and to support all children in achieving that goal.
We need creative thinking from all relevant people aimed at achieving that learning readiness goal for our children in each setting.
We need to start with good information in each setting that will give us benchmark information we can use to guide our thinking and measure our progress. We can measure learning readiness percentages in each setting today at age four — and then we can use that information to help us build the plans we need in each setting to achieve that goal for all children.
We should help every child. In order to get 80 percent or more ready to learn, we should try to provide support to every child in each setting.
We can debate about whether or not we want to expend the resources as communities or as a nation that will be necessary to achieve that goal of helping every child in every setting — but we cannot debate whether or not it is possible to achieve those numbers and whether or not we will be better off as a society and a nation if we achieve those goals.
We know what to do to get every group of children to that score or a higher one and we know that the children who are learning ready at age four will make those learning gaps in our schools disappear because we know now that those readiness levels at age four predict and create that performance in our schools for those students at age fifteen.
Goal — 80 Percent of Four-Year-Olds in Every Setting Learning Ready in Five Years
That goal is logistically and functionally possible to achieve. We can actually make that goal happen in a significant number of settings in a very immediate time frame because the things we need to do to achieve that goal involve very direct and clearly understood processes and interactions for each child, and because each setting and each community who makes that commitment has the potential to put effective approaches in place very quickly to help make that goal happen for their children.
All parents and all families want to help their children.
All parents and all families and all communities want their children to succeed.
We can count on broad and extensive support for this agenda and approach once everyone understands what it is and how much it can make lives better for their children.
This is — at the most core level — a parenting opportunity.
Parents are key.
We need to help all parents and all families help all children achieve those goals. We need to be creative and collaborative and committed to helping our children achieve learning readiness and we need parents to be key components of that process.
We need to look at each community and setting and we need local leaders to figure out what set of tools and approaches can be done in each setting to help each child in their community and group to achieve that goal and then we need to help families by making the tools and support processes available to each parent and family to help their children.
Faith leaders should also take this issue on as a major agenda for their group. Every faith group will be more likely to do well, themselves, with more successful young people in their group.
We also need each community to clearly understand the remarkable new science that says the first 100 days of life are extremely important for each child.
Children did not get support they needed from families and communities those first months in some settings because some components of medical science were unfortunately incorrect and wrong about the impact of those first three months on the developmental reality for each child.
So we can’t blame parents who heard wrong information for not doing the very best and most useful things for their own children in those periods of time.
Those days of not understanding those processes or time frames are gone, however, and the caregivers in our country have all learned the new science.
We need all caregivers to teach that information to every pregnant woman and to every new parent. Medicaid can support that process at multiple levels.
We need every parent to understand both the importance of the first months of life for getting the right start and the extreme importance and opportunities of the first three years of life for neuron connection activities in each child’s brain so that we have everyone supporting the things we need to do to give the very best start as a child.
The new information about the first months of life needs to be taught to parents and families before those months begin.
The new research also tells us that the children who have the most stressful beginnings in those first months and years have a high level of likelihood of acting out and behaving in angry and anti-social ways when they get into school settings.
We actually suspended more children from kindergarten for behavior problems this year in our country than we suspended from high schools. Children who have a presumptive negativity mind set from their earliest experiences when they get to school do not trust teachers or fellow students — and we need to have a level of understanding for those students relative to how difficult it is to have that negativity mind set at such an early age.
We can reduce that level of inter personal anger that we see now from too many children at preschool and kindergarten by helping children consistently have good, reinforcing, and affirming first weeks and first months of life.
That can be done if we make teaching the most helpful interaction approaches to mothers and fathers a priority for our doctors — and for our Medicaid caregivers — in order to help families with the support they need to help their children in those time frames.
We do need to change the tide of initial interactions for many children or we will pay a heavy price from people who are never able to fit in well in the most societal supportive ways.
If the situation in our schools continues to deteriorate, we could have upwards of 70 percent of our students in a number of communities who will be unemployable, angry, and leading lives of deep unhappiness, discouragement, depression, despair, and growing anger that will manifest itself in a wide variety of ways that will significantly weaken our future as a country and make our communities hard places to live.
Health is also directly affected by all of these processes and issues.
The health status of our high school dropout populations also tends to be poor and personally damaging to the people with health conditions. Both depression levels and chemical substance abuse are several times higher for the people who have dropped out of school.
That is not new information about the poor health of the people who do not do well in school. The problematic health status of high school drop outs is well documented.
We can expect that those poor health situations will expand as a problem in multiple communities when we have higher numbers of people who go down those paths because they were not learning ready at age four and when we add to those issues all of the functional and medical problems that result from various levels of racial and ethnic discrimination and disparities that happen too often in health care in our community.
The book, Ending Racial, Ethnic and Cultural Health Care Disparities in America addresses some of those issues.
Our future as a country will be grim if we allow that set of poor health outcomes to happen. Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) research tells us how much damage happens to people’s lives when we have those kinds of difficult starts to our lives.
We Know What to Do to Have Children Be Learning Ready
We were actually very wrong about several very important things in developing our education policy and even our health care policy over the past couple of decades. We need to recognize what those old errors in thinking were, so that we do not repeat them today.
Most people believed that each child was born with a fixed and pre-determined learning ability level — and most people believed that the brain level ability that existed for each child at birth defined each child for their entire life.
That belief could not have been more wrong.
We need everyone to understand the truth on that issue.
We need everyone now to know that we can and should make major differences in the intelligence and learning ability levels of our children — and we need everyone to know that we can grow strong brains for our children by doing basic things in those first extremely important weeks, months, and years for each and every child.
We need everyone to know that the neuron connectivity that results from the direct experiences of each child in the first weeks, months, and years of life actually builds the brain strength of each child and we need to set up support plans for every child to help make that happen.
We need everyone to know that children from every group who get direct interactions with adults in those time frames build neuron strength that lasts for life. Children want those kinds of interactions to happen. We now know from the excellent new brain science research that our very young children from every group love having those interactions and love building strong brains.
We need to make sure in our plans to increase the percentage of children who are learning ready at age four that someone talks to every child in each setting to build those connections.
Parents are the best first teachers and having parents talking to every child is a wonderful thing to do. We also need to make sure that when that is difficult or impossible for a parent to be the direct interaction support at that point in time for a given child, that we have other trusted adults doing those interactions and talking to each child in those periods of time.
We need everyone relevant to children or to those processes to know that just talking to a child actually builds billions of neuron connections in the brain of the child.
The Process Always Happens Individually for Each Child
The new science has taught us that this is an extremely individual developmental process. The learning readiness process always happens one child at a time.
That direct experience that happens for each child in those key months and years makes the difference in neuron connections and in the learning levels for each child.
Some of the data we are seeing about our learning gaps is misleading on that point. We tend to show and report learning gaps by economic levels or by racial and ethnic groups. We tend to measure the gaps in many settings by those groups in ways that seem to indicate that we are reflecting some kind of group performance with those numbers.
That is actually can be very misleading because the process is entirely individual and it does not happen by group.
The learning levels that are being measured are actually not a group reality or a group experience — or a group measurement of any kind. The measurements reflect the individual performance of each child and reflect the learning levels and learning readiness levels that are created by the individual experiences of each child and not any group functionality.
Those learning gaps are also not directly economic.
Some reports and a growing number of opinion pieces make it appear that economic links or the economic status of people directly create learning levels and learning gaps. That belief is also very misleading. In the real world, there is no direct and actual physical link between any bank account or pile of cash and the number and existence of neurons in any child’s brain.
That direct functional link between the actual cash or wealth in any family setting and the actual neurons in a child’s brain in their family does not exist.
Learning readiness and learning capabilities in school for children are very personal and individual measurements — and those measures actually reflect the direct life experience and the neuron connection levels of each child and they are not measures of any group reality or group performance or of anyone’s individual economic status.
The direct life experiences of our children are influenced in a number of ways by the group they are in and by the resources available to each family — but the actual direct interaction experiences that create neuron connections are specific to each child and the impact in learning levels happens with each individual child.
That’s why we see children from every group who are stars — and superstars — and why we see children from every group who are not doing well in those areas. Their scores all reflect their own connectivity levels and their scores as individuals do not measure their group.
Intelligence Levels Are Not Set at Birth
Far too many people do believe — often very strongly — that the intelligence levels for children are actually set at birth.
That is absolutely not true.
The basic belief that we all have our basic intelligence levels pre-determined for each of us on the day we are born is extremely wrong.
In that same vein, the people who did not believe that we could change the learning trajectory for any child in very significant ways were also extremely wrong.
Learning levels and intelligence capabilities are created over years by those neuron connections that are built in those first months and years for each child and those neuron connections in each and every brain are the direct result of the personal interactions that are experienced individually by each child in those first weeks, months and years.
We need to create the best experience in those areas in those time frames for every child.
Our strategy to have 80 percent or more of all children learning ready by age four as a shared national goal should be to help every child from every setting and every group have the kind of direct experiences that cause billions of neurons to connect in their brains. The Harvard Center for The Developing Child video on brain development and their video on Serve and Return interactions with children both show us the kind of direct and responsive interactions that work to have those connections and capabilities happen for each child.
Economic issues and economic status actually are highly relevant to the process. Money does not create neuron connections in any brain — but families who have more money can afford more books, and families with more money can hire child support workers and can use child care settings where the staff members are expected and trained to talk and read to their children.
Moderate-income families average 12 books per child, upper income families tend to have dozens of books — but we have discovered that a very high percentage of very low-income homes do not have a single children’s book.
That problem can be fixed. We can get books to everyone We need to make that book disparity reality disappear in every setting very quickly — and we can and should to do basic things in every community to help get books to every child.
That is a very affordable and low-cost thing to do — and it can be done in various ways in every setting to meet the needs of the low-income parents in each setting.
We also need to use the resources we have available to make sure that every child gets the kind of relevant support from their day care settings that the higher-income families get now from their current day care settings. Many day care settings for low income families do not have a single book. That is also easy to fix.
We can also achieve a very useful goal of having day care settings do a better job for the children they serve in broad ways relatively quickly by using the licensing power we have relative to those services to create expectations for those settings that support the learning readiness goals in every community.
We can also get parents to be more effective purchasers of day care services by getting the day care sites and workers to have and use books.
We can and should set standards and expectations for day care that support the neuron connectivity needs of all of our children. We need all of the day care people who care for our children to personally know and understand the basic brain development processes that happen in the first weeks, months, and years of life — and we need to encourage and enable people talking and reading to our children in all of those settings to help neuron connectivity happen for those children.
Families who understand the brain development process are likely to be better informed and more demanding customers for the day care settings in ways that improve their performance as day care providers as well.
We particularly need to help low-income families.
Being a parent is much more difficult without money.
Low-income mothers with two jobs and sometimes uncertain places to live can have extremely difficult time finding the opportunity to have direct talking and reading and interacting time with their children. We need to do everything in our power to help every mother understand those opportunities to help build neuron connections in her child’s brain — and we do need to figure out ways in every community to use programs like early head start, WIC, Nurse Family Partnerships, and various community reading programs and day care settings to help low-income families get that neuron connectivity time for their children.
We need every community to understand and support that opportunity to help every child and we need to do helpful things in every setting using the available tools to help all of our children get the right start.
We need to strongly support breast feeding for at least a couple of months for every child as a key and extremely useful part of that process. Breast feeding has very high value for each child at multiple levels.
We now know that the basic direct interactions that happen for the brain growth and for the emotional well-being of the children through the breast-feeding interactions tend to be very beneficial for the children. Those neuron connections that happen during the nursing process can obviously help make children more learning ready by age four, so we should work to support those mothers who want to breastfeed their children in whatever ways we can for that extremely important time and process.
Education Does Not Begin at Kindergarten
We need to completely abandon the old belief that education begins at kindergarten.
Many people in many settings have believed that to be true for a long time. We know from some of the new research that some families have held off on getting books to their children before their kindergarten years because of that belief.
We need every family and every community to more past that belief and to appreciate and enjoy the fact that learning starts in the cradle at birth and we need to have talking, interacting, and reading happening for every child at the earliest possible levels. We clearly need to begin at birth with each child and we need to have direct and supportive interactions with each child in the first days and weeks of life.
Having great kindergarten for every child is a good thing to do. We do want great kindergartens for our children — and we also need to recognize that we cannot close our learning gaps in our high schools if we wait for the kindergarten or for pre-kindergarten years before trying to make that happen.
We need to make having children be learning ready before age four our first priority. We can still want great kindergarten for every child because the children who are learning ready when they get to kindergarten can thrive and prosper in those learning settings.
We also want great grade schools and high schools that help every child.
Our schools will have a much higher level of performance and our teachers will have a different and better personal teaching experience when more of their students are learning ready. That higher level of learning readiness will also save money in most schools, because the most expensive and the highest maintenance students and the students with the highest levels of health problems and with the highest medical expenses tend to be the ones who were not learning ready.
Multiple studies of the relative health status of high school drop-outs easily reinforces that reality about those higher medical expenses for those students. Multiple studies in a number of settings have shown that high school drop-outs have much higher rates of asthma, diabetes, chemical use, and depression than the high school graduates — and significantly increasing the number of children who are learning ready at age four will significantly reduce the number of students who drop out and who also have those expenses related to poor health.
We can both transform schools and we can significantly improve the health of our communities when fewer people are dropping out of school by having higher levels of learning readiness for our children at age four.
The number of children in our communities who are being born into the groups at the low end of those learning level scores is significantly increasing. The likelihood of having increased and damaging numbers of very specific Adverse Childhood Events — or ACES — can be significantly reduced by having better interactions between parents and children in those first months and years of life. The impact of ACES on young children not only changes health — it changes incarceration rates.
Some Groups Are Only 20 Percent or Less Learning Ready Now
We clearly need individual communities to take on this issue for the people they serve.
We need to recognize the reality there are several major communities with very low learning scores where the number of children who are learning ready at kindergarten today is between 20 and 30 percent and the number of children being born into those groups with low levels of readiness is increasing.
We know that the number of children who are reading at grade level in the Milwaukee school system last year was under 20 percent for major parts of that system.
A number of California communities have similar scores.
Sonoma County, California, has 40 percent of the total population learning ready at kindergarten. The Hispanic population in that country was less than 30 percent learning ready at kindergarten.
In Sonoma County, an effort was made by the community to increase the learning readiness of the children. Part of that very enlightened and well-designed effort included encouraging parents to read to their children in those first years.
Twenty-eight percent of the Hispanic families in that county did read several books each week to their children, and those Hispanic families who read those books regularly actually had three times as many of their children learning ready by kindergarten as the Hispanic families who did not read books to their very young kids in that county.
Similar success stories exist in a high number of settings where early reading programs are put in place. Children love books, and families tend to love reading. Neurons connect by the billions when books are read to children. The impact is significant and the parenting interactions that occur during the reading process reduce stress for both parents and children at the same time that their learning levels increase.
We can and should use that information about the specific sets of interactions that build neuron connections to help children in every community and setting.
We need communities to understand these issues and take a lead on helping their own children. We can and should do things in every community to focus on those issues and we need leaders in all of those setting, who both teach those realities and support those agendas. A number of communities are beginning to appreciate the value of doing that work for their children — and we need to encourage that thinking in all settings.
We should have people in every community who look at each child to help change the futures for our children by changing the way they interact with the world in the first months and years of life in direct and intentional ways.
Some of the basic things that can be done in various setting for children are listed and described in the Three Key Years book, and are listed in immediately accessible ways on the Three Key Years website.
That Knowledge Creates Accountability for Us All at a Deep Ethical Level
Knowledge about those issues and those opportunities very directly triggers a combination of ability, capability and accountability for everyone who knows that information.
Now that we know that science and that basic brain development information, we have an ethical and moral obligation and an ethical imperative to use it to help children who are being born today.
We also have a massive and clear economic and functional incentive, imperative and obligation to apply that science to our nation’s children in the first weeks, months, and years of life to allow us to succeed in the future as an economy and a nation.
We also have an obligation at a basic ethical level to use that information to remedy and help both address and redress some of the key economic, educational, and health care disparities that we have with us today as a nation.
We have a long history of discrimination by group in this country — and we should respond to that history of discrimination and both economic and functional disparities now by doing the right things today to give children from every group the best possible start in order to enable more people from more groups to achieve the very best parts of the American Dream.
We have known about our various discriminatory practices and inter group disparities in many settings, but we have not had very good tools to use to deal with them. This science that relates to helping all children from every group gives us one of those tools, and we have an ethical obligation to use it now that we know it exists.
We Have More People in Prison than any Other Country by a Wide Margin
We are on bad paths for both education and inter group discrimination in a couple of key areas now.
We have more people in prison than any country in the world by a wide margin — literally imprisoning seven times more people per capita than Canada. That is relevant to our learning readiness at age four goals and agenda because the undisputed and irrefutable reality is that the majority of people in our prisons can’t read.
We disproportionately imprison minority Americans, and we also very disproportionately imprison people from every group who cannot read well and who have dropped out of school.
Those numbers were pointed out earlier. More than 60 percent of the African American males in their 30s who have dropped out of high school are in jail today. By contrast, roughly 10 percent of the African American males who have graduated from high school are in jail today.
Sixty percent of a group being in prison today is a much higher and more damaging number than 10 percent being in jail.
Both numbers are bad. One number is criminally bad.
The important thing we all need to recognize and understand today about all of those incarcerated people is that we can actually now tell before age four which path each of those prisoners was on.
We could have known with more than 80 percent accuracy by age three which of those students were going to drop out of school and end up on that path to prison.
We can know that number about future inability to read and about dropping out of school with a high degree of certainty before age four because we now understand the brain science and the developmental time frames that set up learning readiness that apply to every child.
People who drop out of school make up the overwhelming majority of the children involved in the juvenile justice system and drop outs from all groups are much more likely to go to jail.
That situation linking prison time and learning readiness before age four is not unique to our country. We have far more people per capita in prison, but when you look at who goes to jail in other countries, similar patterns exist. Sixty percent of the people in English prisons cannot read and more than 80 percent of the prisoners in Scottish jails can’t read.
In each of those countries, people who cannot read have a hard time finding a job and the people who do not have jobs are more likely to end up using crime as a source of income.
We have important data about learning gaps and learning readiness by community that should be guiding our thinking. Only 12 percent of the children in Michigan are now entering kindergarten learning ready. More than three-fourths of those children in that school system are not ready for kindergarten today. That means that at least three fourths of those students in Michigan will not be reading well or doing computations at grade level when they get to high school.
Those children in those Michigan schools will have a very hard time being employed when they are adults when they can’t read or do basic calculations.
Illinois has fewer than one-fourth of their children entering kindergarten learning ready. Those children will also not be very employable when they get through their education years.
Chicago has a national reputation for having a disproportionate number of murders happening. When you look at the actual data, we can see that ninety percent of the murders in Chicago were done by gang members — and we can also see that ninety percent of the gang members were high school drop outs.
We see that same basic pattern that ties back to low learning readiness levels in state after state. Look at the learning and computation levels for any state in the federal learning readiness reports to get a sense of how universal the problem is.
If we continue on the path we are on in those settings, we will continue to have extremely low numbers of children from several of our groups graduating from high school with the right learning abilities to do well in either employment or higher education, and we will have twice as many people in in all of those settings in the functional situation of not being employable.
This could and should be a much more positive situation for us as a country at this point in our history. We now have much better tools for helping children.
The actual neuron developmental opportunities that exist for all of our children in every setting are immense and wonderful. Every child is a major possibility for direct success and for having a much better life than the one they will have without those neurons being connected.
The new science is showing us that it is actually It is possible to do extremely beneficial things with almost every single child. We can do wonderful things for almost all children with very basic interactions at those key points in time and we can do it in ways that permanently changes the futures for people and families.
We know these approaches work to change children’s lives because it is happening every day and it clearly works for many millions of children.
We have a subset of our children in all settings right now who are being spoken to, read to, and who get direct interactions with trusted adults daily — and those children with that level of support in all of those settings are doing extremely well.
We currently have the highest SAT scores in our history for some of our children. That high level of ability happens for some children because the brains blossom and the neuron connections almost explode when the children get the right stimulation at the right point in time — and we now know from the new research programs that our children who get that stimulation in those high opportunity first weeks, months and years of life love getting it.
We are all wired to learn in those first weeks, months, and years — and researchers are now telling us that early learning interactions actually creates joy in the children from every group who get that set of interactions.
On the other end of the continuum — if a child does not get those interactions and if a child is functionally either ignored or under some levels of stress in those first months and years — those billions of neuron connections do not happen for that child and the child has worse health, lower learning levels, and a number of stress related behavioral challenges and pressures.
We Know what happens for the children who do not have those interactions. They have very different learning levels at age four and they have very different levels of health and functionality at age 12 than the ones who do get them.
The Learning Gaps in Each School Were Not Caused by the Schools
We now know that the learning gaps are caused by neuron linkage differences from the first years of life for each child — and we know that they are not caused by our schools. But even though that insight is confirmed by our newly known brain development science, the truth is that we should have all at least suspected that reality about the schools not creating the gaps we have been seeing for all of those years to be true earlier just by looking at what was actually happening in the schools.
Basic logic is relevant to that assessment. When there are multiple sets of students in the same schools who all have the same teachers, the same desks, the same books, the same classroom hours, and the same curriculum, and when we see that there are significant learning gaps between sets of students in each of those schools where everything relevant and functional in the schools was the same for all of the children, then we could have figured out and known that the learning gaps in those settings were functionally not the fault of the schools or the teachers because the key specific factors about the education situation in all of those settings were the same for every child from every group in each school.
Teachers are key to the learning process and to the education reality for each child and we need to do everything we can to help teachers be successful in helping their students in all of our schools.
We need teachers who know how to deal with all children in each setting regardless of their learning readiness. We need teachers to understand and deal with the issues of bias and unconscious bias and all of the damages that those issues can cause when they exist.
We also need to do everything we can to help the children who have fallen behind to catch up as much as they each can in each setting. We need our schools to be a haven and a resource for every child — and we need to maximize the number of children who learn well in our school settings.
Age Four Learning Readiness Is Key and Should Be a Top Priority for Us as a Nation
If we do not want to become a nation that is significantly and dangerously increasing the millions of people who have only marginal and weak computation and reading and cognitive skills as adults, then we need to understand the science of brain development in those first weeks, months, and years of life and then we need to do effective things in every community, every family, and every setting to give supportive starts for every child from every group to have them all be learning ready at age four.
We could easily achieve that goal.
We are a very wealthy nation. We have vast resources that we could apply in a wide range of cost effective, intentional, targeted and focused ways to help every child as a high return investment as a country. We have enough money to help every child, if we figure out a path that has us look at each child from birth with that goal in mind.
We know every birth. We can put in place resources though each community that keeps track of the strategy for every child — and we can anchor that path for our Medicaid births with programs built into Medicaid to do that work. We can and could and should very intentionally, wisely and effectively give ourselves a future where all of our children are on the right side of that learning gap at age four and beyond and we will find that to be an extremely high return for our money.
Multiple economists have run the numbers. The return on that investment is guaranteed and it is massive and it is very fast because the better health and lower education cost rewards kick in very quickly.
It makes very strong economic sense to invest in our children — because our economic future as a country will be far better if we have graduates who are employed and become taxpayers instead of drop outs who will not pay taxes and who will have major health care problems and who will spend significant time in prison.
Several economists have made that point clearly. James Heckman, Nobel Laureate in Economics at the University of Chicago has pointed out the clear and positive financial return that we get from investing in those children in the first years of life.
Katharine Stevens at the American Enterprise Institute has pointed out the clearly practical logistical need for us to help children in those first years of life in order to have a workforce in the future. We need workers who can work or we will need to have our work force needs met overwhelmingly by immigrant workers who can read and do calculations.
Aaron Sojourner, at the University of Minnesota, has shown the massive economic return that can happen and explains the more productive overall population that can be created by a relatively high cost intervention in the lives of our lowest income children.
An overview of the process that describes Development in the First Years of Life by toxic stress pioneer and child development icon Ross Thompson helps create context for the entire opportunity that we face today.
The economists all agree that we should spend the money in order to have future tax payers, future workers, and students who can enter into multiple lines of work because they have very high capability levels — and the return on investment will be a multiple of the money we spend.
If we do not make that investment, we will have tens-of-millions of nonreaders and we will have people in gangs and in prison because their life trajectory doesn’t lead them to employment or education.
That is not a hard set of choices. We should have people of every political persuasion on board with that agenda because our future success and even safety as a country depends on it.
Knowledge Is Extremely Empowering
We need to begin by giving the power of clear knowledge to mothers and fathers and families as soon as we can about these issues and processes.
We need to start by teaching the science and the basic brain development and learning ability strengthening process and brain exercise paradigm in clear and basic ways to every mother and every father and to every family and every community.
Far too many parents do not know that process or do not understand those opportunities when their children are born.
When First Five in California did a study of California Medicaid parents four years ago, they discovered that fewer than 10 percent of the Medicaid mothers knew at that point in time that they could exercise the brain of their child and strengthen the brain. Almost everyone believed that intelligence for each person was determined at birth — and almost all of those parents believed that every child was simply going to have the brain strength for life that was predestined for each child just by being born.
All mothers love their children — and the reaction from the mothers to being told that interacting with their baby in those first months and years could significantly strengthen the brain — and that talking, reading, and even singing to each baby could build billions of neuron connections for each child, was extremely positive. Both mothers and fathers loved hearing that message. The reaction from the parents could not have been more positive.
All parents and families want their children to do well and to be healthy, smart, and happy with their lives. Parents want the best lives for their children. We can build on that desire and that love of parents for their children and we can teach that wonderful brain science and those very basic and highly useful brain building tools to everyone relevant to our children in ways that will increase the likelihood of each child benefiting from that knowledge.
We are blessed today with an explosion of knowledge from an exploding number of sites of learning about these issues.
We need to appreciate how many great academic programs are working on those issues and making us considerably wiser and smarter on all of those opportunities with a rapidly expanding base of knowledge.
The Harvard Center for The Developing Child is doing wonderful research and work in those areas and is warning us of what will happen if we do not take advantage of this opportunity.
Patricia Kuhl and her team at the University of Washington are doing extremely important work on brain development and language development in the first months and years of life.
Other research programs are issuing warnings and are pointing us in similar directions. Stanford did great work on children who have fallen behind by 18 months and have continued to point out how hard it is for any of those children to ever catch up.
UCLA did supporting work on relative brain size in very early years based on learning trajectories for each child and pointed out the lifetime differences in brain sizes that happen when children do not get that support in those key years.
The University of California at Berkeley research people very recently did great work on the learning readiness of Hispanic Families in California that expanded our knowledge of those issues significantly in extremely important ways. Their piece — “Differing Cognitive Trajectories of Mexican American Toddlers” — is pioneering work and it points out that the Hispanic Children who have fallen behind because of their relative interactions in those first months and years of life do not catch up.
The grim data reinforces itself. We can wish it was not true — but wishing that it wasn’t true does not weaken the damage done to children who do not get the support that we need children to have in those weeks, months and first years.
We Need Parental Leave Time to Become Neuron Connection Time
Now that we understand that science, we need to have people who run our legislatures and our governments using it to guide public policy.
As one example, we should now think of parental leave support in a different context. We need to make parental leave function as part of that neuron development process for having children be learning ready at four years old.
That new science gives us a whole new case and a whole new strategy and function and reason to advocate for parental leave after births and it also gives us excellent new tools to use in much more effective ways with parents who take a parental leave at that high opportunity time in the life of their child.
We now have a solid scientific reason to change our policy in all states to both give our children the best possible start and to save massive money over time for our schools, our health care system, and even our prison system, by using parental leave to get the right interaction and neuron development start for every child.
We need both parental leave opportunities for parents and we need the people who take that leave who know what kinds of direct and responsive interactions with their child in that time frame will provide the most value and structural and long-term benefit to their own child.
We Need WIC and Early Head Start and Nurse Partnerships to Help Parents Help Children
As a society, we should build a strategy for giving the best start for every child. The fact that well over half of the births in America this year will be to Medicaid Mothers can be a major blessing because it gives us a very direct and extremely functionally relevant access point for both mothers and children that we can use to help significantly with that process.
We need the Medicaid obstetricians and Medicaid pediatricians and the related nurse support teams to be teaching this information to every mother even before the baby is born.
We need a plan for each mother. We need a plan for each child.
Those are not impossible to do. We can use computer support tools to help make those plans happen.
We should use the full sets of tools we have in very intentional ways to support those plans.
We should include in that plan tool kit both the WIC food support program coaching teams that help most Medicaid mothers now and the nurse family partnership teams and the next generation of nurse support services that we have now in many settings to help with that teaching and that work.
We also need to use our Early Head Start processes widely and well. Head Start is a great program but it starts after three years old and doesn’t tend to close learning gaps. Early Head Start can begin at birth and should be directed to make learning readiness at age four a major priority.
Extending all of those programs into improving learning readiness levels for children before age four can create some expense — but multiple economists have shown us that the positive economic payback from having more children be more learning ready is almost immediate and huge.
Even if the economic issues did not support that agenda, we have safety issues for our communities that should push us to helping every child into a future of employment and not crime. We have major gang problems in multiple cities that are growing worse — and we need to remove the inability to find other employment because of reading deficiencies as a major reason for people to join gangs.
Learning Gap Closure Is Like Introducing Polio Vaccine to Health Care at Age Four
Polio actually offers us a lesson we should learn about helping our children learn.
We can learn a lesson from health care about their response to polio as a community problem.
Polio is a horrible disease that did a lot of damage and created a lot of pain and anxiety for many people for many years. We responded to that disease as communities and as caregivers in the best ways that we knew to deal with the damage and the fear. The primary approach that was used by health care practitioners for many years for the disease of Polio involved many after-the-fact supports, tools, damage repair responses and various functional remediations for the people who were damaged by the disease.
Care organizations invented respirators, and walkers and iron lungs for their polio patients. Those wonderful, creative, innovative, highly functional and often very expensive tools each helped each damaged person who used them but they actually did nothing about the actual disease.
Then health care came up with a vaccine.
Instead of just repairing and remediating damage done to our people by that horrible disease, we invented a tool and approach that actually prevented the disease and we made it a major national public policy priority to vaccinate everyone against that disease.
The vaccine and a clear, intentional and effective massive public health commitment and plan to use it on behalf of everyone in the country was a far better approach than iron lungs for America.
The vaccine went upstream in the process and it did a high impact intervention with each person that prevented the disease from happening for most people and completely changed and improved the health care world for polio as a disease.
We can and should use that same strategy and that same basic model and mind set for our schools and for our learning gaps. We need to go upstream in the process of learning ability for each child. We should not just do damage control and after the fact remediation for the people who cannot read and who have dropped out of school.
We need a vaccine.
We need a vaccine equivalent tool for those learning gaps, incarceration rates, and economic disparities in our country that are driven by major differences in education and learning levels for our people to keep those gaps and those damages from happening.
Closing the learning readiness gaps for all children by age four in America as a priority for all communities in this country can be that vaccine.
It would be a huge mistake for us not to figure out how to do the right thing in all of those settings to help children in every setting and functionally change the trajectory of those damaging realities for our children and our communities.
We understand the vaccine that exists that can actually end the learning gaps in our schools by preventing them from happening.
The new science that is being developed and refined by brilliant researchers in multiple settings has given us the tool kit that we need. We know exactly what can make that change to keep those learning gaps from damaging our children.
We now know what to do for each child. We know what interactions change lives relative to learning issues and capabilities for each child — and we know when and how to do each of the things that have huge impact on each child.
We now need leaders in every setting for every group who agree to remedy that learning gap deficiency in all of our schools and who create that reality and who share that understanding level about how to prevent that learning deficiency with the people they serve and lead and then we need to save our kids by making sure all of our kids are learning ready at age four.
We can break the cycle of learning deficiencies for growing numbers of people that threatens to break us and damage us as a country and as communities if we don’t prevent it from happening. We also need to avoid unintentional damage to our children.
Amazing learning. It would be foolish of us not to use it.
There are a number of pieces that point in this direction.
We now know what we can do to help every child be learning ready at age four. We should both be basically ashamed of ourselves as a society if we do not do it and we should be very happy with ourselves for doing things that help make that better future happen in any setting.
We Can Actually Each Change a Life
We also all need to recognize, remember, know, understand, and appreciate that this process happens one child at a time and we can each use that knowledge to change a life.
Even if we do not each do the things we need to do right now to help large numbers of children be more learning ready by age four, each of us reading this information should know that we can each change a life by personally and directly getting this information to one family who would not know this key information about the neuron connectivity potential in those first weeks, months, and years for their child if you did not share it with them.
Once you teach them this information, it can change their paradigm about what is possible for their child, and they can use it to build brain strength for their child. Each family with a young child who gets that information can use it to change the life of a child.
You can get that information to them and you can change a life.
What else can you do today to change the trajectory of a life in extremely positive and beneficial ways?
Figure out someone in the world who will benefit from this information and share it with them.
We can actually change the trajectory of a life in hugely important ways by simply doing that one thing.
Do it if you can. Talk to someone relevant to a new birth or a very young child and teach this opportunity and process.
Share a link to the Three Key Years website with someone who does not know that information. It can change a life.
The Most Important Number in America Is Learning Readiness at Age Four
The most important thing to do is to help create a learning readiness goal for each community and for us as a country.
You are invited to be part of that effort, movement, and agenda.
We need to make having 80 percent or more of our children be learning ready at age four a major priority for our communities and for our nation. There are several good measures of learning readiness that can be used to measure how ready our children are. Each community should choose the readiness measurement tool that works best for them. Sonoma and Cleveland and Omaha and a number of other enlightened communities are going down those paths to some degree now and they have begun to make progress in key areas.
The readiness measurement is useful, but it is not the most important part of that strategy. The most important part is to actually put support in place for each child.
We need every community to be working on those issues — because every community has children being born this year who will benefit from that support — and we need every community to figure out the combination of supports that will help their children.
It is entirely possible for each setting to put workable and effective programs and both education and support processes in place to help every child get the right start because we now know that it is possible to do.
At an individual level, each child we save is a child we save — and saving even one child is a beautiful thing because that child will avoid the misery, depression, incarceration levels, and poor health that too often result from not having that neuron connection support in those key weeks, months and years of life.
On a much broader level — but not necessarily higher level — the economic reasons for going down that path to learning readiness are overwhelmingly positive.
All of the return on investment (ROI) studies reach the same uncontestable conclusion.
The economic and ethical and functional needs, advantages, and benefits for us to have as many children as possible learning ready at age four are massive and irrefutable.
We also need to do it in order to have any possible chance of achieving inter group Peace.
We will be deeply damaged as a country and our children and our grandchildren will live in a divided, angry, dangerous and dysfunctional world if we do not do the right things now to help children from every group get on the right and effective track for their learning readiness levels before age four.
Every community should set those learning gap closure goals — and then every community should do effective things to close them. Instead of thinking about education as being K-12 — we need to think of education as being B-C — Birth to College.
We need a collective effort to make those gaps disappear — and that collective effort needs to be anchored in the science and supported by our understanding that every group will be damaged and our country will have a very grim future if we do now achieve those goals.
The choice is ours.
Let’s make the right choice.
Please — if this entire perspective and context for the future of our children makes sense to you — then share this idea and share this proposal with someone who you think should both understand it and help make it happen.
Ask any relevant leader of your community — your town or family or organization or group — to set this goal for your people and help make all children ready to learn when they are four years old.
That strategy can benefit every group who uses it for their children to have high levels of learning readiness at age four — and we will benefit collectively when we have people succeeding and not acting out of anger to keep other people from benefiting from their success.
This process of neuron development happens for one child at a time and it is happening now for each child who is in those time frames for their own life after being born.
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This post was written by Institute for InterGroup Understanding