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We Have No Chance of Closing the Wealth Gaps in America Unless We Help Children Get the Right Start in the First Three Years of Life

Child reading

May 12, 2022

We have absolutely no chance of closing the earning gaps or the wealth gaps in our country if a majority of the children in the low-income groups can’t read.

We have failed in closing the learning gaps in our country for over three decades — and the number of children in our schools who can’t read even close to grade level has actually increased every year.

The cold hard biological reality is that the only time when we can build the learning capacity foundational levels in the brains of our children is in the first three years of life when we can actually build neuron connections by the billions in the mind of each child.

The brains change for our children at age 4.

Nothing that is being done in our schools to correct the major and painful learning deficits in all of those settings has succeeded for more than 30 years and the hard truth is that nothing that is being done even with the very best intentions in our schools is going to succeed now because the only functional time when the right set of capabilities can be created in each of our children to create both that opportunity and that ability to learn is around 15 months of age and it is absolutely, definitely and clearly not at 15 years of age.

The relevant epigenetics of learning are absolute and universal and clear.

We all have the same epigenetic programing in our brains — and that program is set up to allow each of us to easily connect neurons in our brains by the billions and even by the trillions in the first three years of life and then the epigenetics cause us to actually change the process entirely for each child and to start purging the unused neurons from our brains for every child at age 4.

The science of brain development for each child is absolutely clear and it is extremely important at an individual level for each child.

If we help children develop the basic neuron connections in the first two and three years of life, they have capabilities that last their entire lives. But if we miss that time limited opportunity for any child, then catching up is extremely difficult and the cold and hard reality is that children who are behind at age 4 for those neuron connections spend their entire lives with lower ability to read, lower capability to do mathematics, and less ability to learn new subjects of almost any kind than the children who had those connections happen in those first months and years.

Well-meaning, well-intentioned, and even sometimes well-funded and well-resourced pre-kindergarten programs have failed in so many settings to make discernable improvements in the learning levels for children because the pre-kindergarten programs in those schools almost always start after the children are 4 years old.

We need to love and support and nourish and defend and protect the children who have fallen behind by age 4 and we should not abandon or give up on any child ever — but we should know and understand the hard reality that the children who are not learning ready at age 5 will simply not be good at reading or at doing math as the learning ready children at age 4.

That creates very real problems for those children.

Children who can’t read are much more likely to drop out of school.

We imprison more people than any country on the planet by a large measure. When we look at our African American males in their thirties who have dropped out of high school, we see that 60 percent of the dropouts are actually in jail today and the sad and painful truth is that 80 percent of the dropouts will spend time in jail over their lifetime.

By contrast, when we look at African American males who have graduated from high school, we see about 10 percent in jail.

Ten percent in jail is a horrible and painful number and 10 percent in jail reflects some serious discrimination and major and multiple inequities in various aspects of our communities and our legal system — but we need to understand that 60 percent in jail is even more horrible and the functional reality is that we can now know with more than 80 percent accuracy by age 3 who will be dropping out of school.

Learning readiness is key.

Learning readiness at age 3 depends on the neuron connections that were formed in the children’s brains in those first three years, and we know that those connections can all be created and supported in each and every child if we do the right things now as a country to make the right things available to each and every child in those first months and years.

Other countries have similar incarceration patterns. They have far fewer people in jail in other countries, but that particular pattern is very similar.

Sixty percent of the people in jail today in England can’t read. More than 70 percent of the people in jail in Canada have dropped out of high school there. Scotland actually has more than 80 percent of the people in their prisons unable to read.

Scotland is now trying to do things to help children in the first three years of their lives to be able to build the neuron connections that will enable them to read because some of their people believe that the very best way they have of getting the number of people in jail to lower numbers in Scotland is the have those neuron connections exist in high numbers for every child.

Our own school learning gaps are bad and they have gotten worse.

In America, we now have over 60 percent of the Hispanic and African American students in our schools not reading at the needed levels. The average net worth of Hispanic families in American is under $40,000 and the average net worth of African American families is now at $23,000 — and we know that the average net worth of Caucasian families is more than $180,000 — and it is clearly growing.

We have multiple levels of prejudice and discrimination driving the earning and wealth inequities for us as a nation, and we do need to directly address those issues but we also need to make it a major priority for absolutely everyone from every group to be able to read when they graduate from school.

The average net worth of high school drop outs from every group is currently at $18,000.

So what do we do now?

We need the learning gaps to go away and that should be a top priority for us all starting now for every child being born in America today.

Some school systems are particularly troubled. In many of the Milwaukee schools, only 15 percent of the students can do grade level computations. The likelihood of the students in Milwaukee schools who can’t do grade level computations somehow getting jobs that pay at or above community norms in Milwaukee is obviously low.

This is not new information.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) research and policy document of more than two decades ago, called Neurons to Neighborhoods, did an extremely good job of explaining exactly what the problem and the opportunity in early brain connectivity in the first months and first years is for all of our children. That very clear brain development information from the IOM turned out to be too painful and too challenging for anyone in our communities or our schools to actually use it.

Our politicians and our education communities have failed miserably and even sometimes shamefully in using that extremely important information. Our school districts have tried with great energy and with clear commitments in many settings to close the learning gaps in the schools but the educators of our country in all of those settings have avoided the science and they have completely ignored the fact that the schools will always fail in closing those learning gaps at age 15 if the children in the schools are not learning ready at age 5.

Some educators have even banned discussions of neuron connection issues for some inexplicable and highly unfortunate political correctness rule sets and decisions, but that avoidance of that science and that avoidance of those developmental time frames for each child is extremely wrong and damaging and banning the use or even mention of that information has given us some of the worst learning gaps in the world and has given us millions of badly prepared and badly educated children who face difficulties for their entire lives because of those gaps and challenges.

We blame the schools when that happens and we do not do the things we need to do in each of those settings to keep it from happening again.

That is extremely sad. That massive failure actually should not have happened in those settings and it also absolutely does not need to happen again.

We need to change direction on key parts of that agenda now.

The children are ready.

Every child from every group is programmed to learn and children from every group are all also strongly programmed to love to learn.

Our children who get those needed interactions in the first months and first years of life absolutely love getting them. They all deserve that opportunity. We need to change our focus from political correctness, and wishful thinking to actually helping children, and we need to do that very soon because most of our schools now have a majority of children who find it difficult to read or count and those numbers are getting worse.

Covid actually did extensive damage to our learning levels as well, and several studies have shown that the schools at the low end of the learning gap have seen their performance dropping with the Covid restrictions and with the restricted and Covid-limited learning opportunities — and that damage is likely to be permanent for too many people.

We should not have had those gaps in the first place. We should all know the science everywhere. We should also put tools in place to help children everywhere. We know what those tools are — and we need to begin using them in every community and in every educational setting and to do that now.

The foundational tools are available to us and they are easy to use.

Books can and should be a key part of that agenda and of that neuron development strategy and we should make books available to all children now.

Do it yourself if we can’t get systems and organizational support in the short term and immediate future, because you can change lives in many families and settings starting now with that particular tool.

Books actually and functionally give us an extremely easy-to-use tool that can help children in direct and enjoyable ways, and multiple studies show us today that we fail miserably and inequitably in using that tool for far too many of our children now.

Books should be everywhere that we have children. They can be extremely useful and books should be used in all of our settings for all of our children because they work so well and they are so extremely easy to use.

Books help neurons connect because they tee up and enable and facilitate the interactions that make the connections happen and create a context of both security and joy for each child as they are being used.

It isn’t magic. Books are hugely useful and highly effective in that neuron connectivity stimulation process because they facilitate and structure and easily create the interactions that inspire the connections to happen for each individual child.

We all need to know how to help neurons connect in our children, because those connections are so extremely important for the life trajectories of every child.

Talking is key. Talking has great power to make those connections happen and we are epigenetically wired to link those processes in the brains of our children.

Talking to children is actually the key action step that is needed at the individual levels by every child.

The full and specific functional opportunity that builds neuron connections by the billions is for the children in the first years of life to have a direct interaction with at least one adult that involves spoken words. The children can each build a billion neuron connections in very short order just by having a direct verbal interaction and exchange with an adult.

Children need to hear words spoken by adults in an interactive way to make those neurons connect. Books can create the context and the easy opportunity for those spoken words and for those functional verbal interactions to happen and books are extremely easy to use and distribute in almost every setting.

Multiple studies have shown that the children in settings with no books and with no daily reading hear on average less than 5 thousand spoken words by age 5. By contrast, the children in the homes that read even once a day, hear more than 200,000 spoken words by age 5. Hearing 200,000 spoken words gets over 60 percent of the children up to learning readiness levels that allow them to both compute and to read when they are in both grade school and high school.

There are some serious inequities in book distribution and use. Researchers have said that some of the homes in the early learning studies have dozens of books. Some settings even read to their children several times a day, and those children in those settings hear over a million spoken words by age 5.

The million-word gap reference that often gets cited in media accounts about learning readiness issues is based on that higher number and the million-word level is real but it is far from the most important and the most relevant number for helping and supporting our children in that time frame.

The most important and relevant and achievable number is to have at least one book in the home and to have enough books to read to the child daily — and the children who hear 250,000 words or more because they are read to at least once a day are much more learning ready when they get to kindergarten because billions of neurons connect every day when that happens.

That is extremely important and useful information. It gives us an easy to use and highly effective tool to make those learning gaps go away.

We need at least one book being read in every home.

For the homes with illiterate parents who can’t read themselves, just telling the story to the child from the books has a highly effective and positive impact on neuron connections that is far better than not having the books in those homes.

We very much need those neurons to connect.

The consequences and negative impacts of not doing that level of neuron connectivities in those first months and first years are actually extremely important for us all to understand.

In America today, we are in trouble.

Big trouble.

Serious and damaging trouble.

Almost half of the births in our country this year will be in Medicaid homes. That direct contact with that well-intentioned program should actually give us a wonderful opportunity to help all of those children if we intentionally and explicitly have the Medicaid care givers coaching and teaching every mother and every father and even relevant family members on doing the things in the first months and first years of life that create billions of neuron connections in their children’s brains.

It is easy coaching and it is extremely useful information, and it is both sad and wrong and extremely deficient for us as a community if we fail to provide that coaching and that support to over half of the parents who need it at the exact time when they can make the most use of that information.

Medicaid obstetricians should be coaching Mothers on those issues before the baby is even born.

We fail miserably in teaching Mothers and Fathers and other family members the benefits of those interactions, and that information and coaching should be a core ingredient of our Medicaid care team expectations and a key part of our basic care package for our children and every school district in America should recognize they will have no possibility of eliminating their learning gaps if they don’t support this process now in every setting.

We should not continue to fail.

The biggest shortcoming, failing, deficiency, direct inequity, clear disparity and even functional health status danger to our children is that we now know from multiple studies that more than half of the Medicaid homes do not have a single book and we are doing absolutely nothing to correct that deficiency.

We should not blame the parents.

It makes sense at several levels for those homes not to have books. Low-income mothers and families who have to spend every penny on food and on rent and on clothing and who have significant basic transportation expenses as well far too often don’t have the money on hand to also buy books and we know that over half of the Medicaid homes actually do not have one book because they can’t afford them and because their care teams in far too many settings have never given them the medical context for having and using the books.

That situation is just wrong.

Having more than half of the low-income homes without one single book is actually almost criminal. Books are relatively cheap and they are universally loved by both parents and children and we should simply give them out from every Medicaid care site and from the WIC programs that most of the mothers use for food related issues and availability.

When one WIC program in Los Angeles (Little by Little) passed out books along with healthy food to their Medicaid-linked WIC mothers, they raised the learning readiness level to nearly 60 percent for those homes that received the books.

We need to support those kinds of programs everywhere. The pure fairness issues alone should cause us to act in those directions.

The average American non-Medicaid home now has over twelve books per child. A high number have over 20 books per child. The children in those homes love having the books and multiple studies have shown the low-income mothers who are given the books treasure the opportunity and the resource when they get the books, and the clear result is that the children often show great joy when actual books are made available to them and the learning readiness gaps shrink significantly.

So it should be absolutely unacceptable to us when most Medicaid homes don’t have books and our educators and caregivers and any and all people who believe in equity between groups of Americans should make getting books into those homes a priority.

We need to make learning readiness for all children a top priority

We should all look at the science and we should all understand the science and we should all help all of the children using that science.

The Harvard Center for the Developing Child has wonderful information on these processes and those issues. They have done great work on that entire set of issues, and the clearly understand what needs to be done. The Brain Hero video is worth watching for context.

So, what should we do now to help our children?

We Americans need to do five things to help our children:

1) We need everyone relevant to education in every single setting and to health care in every care setting to understand the extreme importance of brain development in the first three months and first three years of life for every child.

Anyone and everyone in education in America should know and understand these issues and it should be part of the culture, the belief system and the direct foundation and the context for all educators in America. Education isn’t just K to 12 anymore. Education is clearly from birth on, and we know should all know that the first three years determine who is going to be functional and capable in our high schools and in our universities, and in our advanced education settings.

2) We need every single new parent in America to know very directly that the first three months and the first three years of life give their children huge amounts of building and growth opportunities for their child’s personal and individual life trajectory tool kit — and we need all parents to know the things that can be done to help their children in that time are easy and fun to do as well as being extremely important and valuable at functional levels for their children.

3) We need to get books to every child. Books are the most effective, easiest and highest impact short term, medium term and immediate asset for each child and for each family — and we need every school board and every health site for kids to figure out ways of making books available to every child so they don’t have those huge learning gaps in their schools.

We can get books from multiple directions and get them quickly and make it a sin for any community that has children in it not to be supporting those processes and approaches for every child.

4) We need to help every child who has fallen behind by age four with the kind of support that can create earning trajectories and learning trajectories and functional support for their lives. As we look at social determinants of health issues, we need to provide targeted and effective support for those people and those patients.

One care system looked at their patient population and discovered that the African American women who had dropped out of high school were more than twice as likely to have diabetes as adults. We need to incorporate that kind of data into our care plans for all patients and we should all understand the impact of the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) data and research as well on the risk levels and care strategies for people’s lives.

5) We should all recognize and understand that the neuron connection process and the epigenetic dictated time frame is extremely important information at a foundational level. We each need to have a sense of current urgency on the neuron connection issues and we should each apply that learning and that sense of opportunities to our lives and to our families and to our communities where ever that science and that process is relevant to what we are doing.

The wealth gaps in America are huge. There are layers of prejudice, discrimination, bias, and other relevant factors that also cause those wealth and earning gaps to exist — and that total package of prejudice makes it even more important for us all to move upstream in the process and to change those trajectories for all of our children in those first weeks and months and years of life so that we can do what needs to be done so that the overwhelming majority of our people will be able to read.

Chicago has a very high number of murders right now. When we look at who is being murdered in Chicago, we know from multiple studies that 90 percent of the murders involve gang members. We also know from extensive data that 90 percent of the gang members in Chicago today are high school drop outs.

We now know that we could have predicted with 90 percent accuracy by age 3, which of those people in those Chicago settings actually were going to drop out of school.

We should be helping every single child who is being born in Chicago today to get the right level of support to keep them off that trajectory of gangs, prison, and early death and onto a pathway to much better lives.

We also know from the Federal Reserve Bank data that when we look at those first three years and their impact on our life trajectories, the people who have a college degree in America have a net worth of about $243,000. We also know that the people who have a post graduate degree in America have an average net worth of $484,000, and we know that the people who dropped out of school from all groups have a net worth of $18,000.

Those are very different numbers.

We need to understand clearly and we need to accept intellectually that no one from any group has a chance or a hope or a possibility of either college graduation or a post college degree without having somehow had the experience of having the right and needed set of neuron connecting interactions happening in those first three years of their lives in order to make that learning possible.

We need to be real and we need to be painfully honest with ourselves about that need and about that opportunity for each and every child.

We actually do know the science.

We each need to use that science now to help our children.

We are all ethically, morally, personally, logistically, and functionally deficient if we don’t use and share that information about those opportunities for each and every child in effective and useful ways with everyone who should know it now that we actually know it to be true.

Please.

Do the sharing and the support for the children now.

Covid just made everything worse — and we need to recover from Covid and we need to also give our very youngest people from every group the best chances they could ever have by getting this process right for each child and by doing it well now.

Share this information and this opportunity with anyone and everyone in your life and in your community and in your various spheres of influence and impact who can and should make better decisions in what they do by knowing and understanding this reality to be true.