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Child’s first 5 years hold key to success

Bill Frist
By Bill Frist

Doctor and Senator Bill Frist is both a nationally recognized heart and lung transplant surgeon and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader. He is also a member of the advisory and leadership council of Too Small to Fail. 

As a surgeon, I understand the exigency of a window of opportunity. In cardiac transplant, procurement of a donor heart starts a strict four-hour window until that heart needs to be beating in the chest of the accepting patient — a patient who is almost always a plane ride away.

Neuroscience research has revealed a similarly crucial window of opportunity. Between birth and 5 years old, 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs, and at a lightning-fast pace. Every sight, smell, sound and sensation makes an impact. Long before most children step foot into a classroom, neurons are building networks, cognition is exploding, language is developing, and the foundations are being laid for a lifetime of learning.

Outside of that five-year window, you lose opportunities you may never get back. Children who don’t develop sufficient language skills in those first years are up to six times more likely to experience reading problems in school. When children fall behind in reading, every other aspect of education suffers.

The good news is that taking advantage of this window of opportunity is much easier than transplant surgery.

Every interaction a child has with his or her environment is an opportunity for learning. In the first five years, daily activities — talking, singing, reading, playing — stimulate brain development and dramatically influence future health, learning and behavior.

This message may seem simple, but many children do not start school prepared.

A new initiative called Too Small to Fail, led by Next Generation and the Clinton Foundation, is working to make sure parents and caregivers get this message so they can make the most of the first five years of a child’s life and help the child succeed.

The initiative focuses on educating parents that the most impactful thing they can do for language development is the most obvious: talking to your kids.

Children build their vocabulary by listening to and interacting with their moms, dads, grandparents and caregivers. Just as a healthy diet and physical activity help toddlers grow, reading and talking to them helps their brains develop and builds language skills that form the foundation for learning the rest of their lives.

The more words a child hears from caring adults between birth and age 5, the better he or she will learn over a lifetime. However, these words need to be delivered in face-to-face interactions. Passive listening — watching videos or having the TV on in the background — does not show a positive association with language development.

In my home state of Tennessee and around the country, families are stretched thinner than ever. We are juggling multiple jobs that barely cover the cost of child care. We are single-parent homes facing issues as complicated as health care and as mundane as daily transportation and grocery shopping. It can seem like there’s never enough time — or money — to do all the things you would like for your children.

However, the exciting news of Too Small to Fail is that there is an opportunity for every parent and caregiver to make a real difference in the lives of their children without an act of congress or new government initiative. In fact, it costs no money at all.

When preparing dinner, shopping at the market or even folding laundry, identify shapes, colors and numbers. Ask your child questions about the buildings you pass on the way home. Which are tall and which are short? Make mealtime a time for discussion about what’s on their plate.

Talking and singing to children from the day they come home from the hospital helps develop language skills. Reading to your child for 15 minutes a day can make a tremendous difference in his or her future success. These may seem like small steps, but they add up quickly.

Recent research in brain science is really just reenforcing the importance of doing what we already know is good for our children. Our parental intuition is more astute than we think.

But life can be busy and sometimes we forget. That’s why Too Small to Fail is bringing together educators, business leaders, physicians, community organizations — everyone from me to Hillary Clinton. We all have a role to play in making sure parents and caregivers know the simple things they can do to get their children off to a great start.

This is one instance where talk may be cheap, but it will prove invaluable.

This article originally appeared in The Tennessean.