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Start Ahead and Stay Ahead

Delia Pompa & Ronald Ferguson
By Delia Pompa & Ronald Ferguson

Delia Pompa is Senior Vice-President of Programs at National Council of La Raza. Ronald F. Ferguson is Senior Lecturer in Education and Public Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Both are also Advisory Council members of Too Small to Fail (toosmall.org). 

If you’re a parent, or you’re the one who takes care of a young child, you are doing an extra job every day. You may not even realize it, but you’re already doing it: 

You are teaching.

People usually think of teaching as something that a school teacher does in a classroom – something that they went to college to learn and for which they received a title through special certification and years of preparation. 

But you’re probably not a school teacher, and you don’t need to be. Instead, you are a parent. And parents teach by simply talking to their children and doing things together that help the children learn.

Every moment you interact with your baby or young child, you are helping their brain develop. Just as you are the main source of food and nourishment, you are also the key source of learning beginning from birth.

The National Research Council tells us we can’t afford to wait until a child enters school to stimulate connections in the brain. To prepare a child for a lifetime of learning – to fulfill the American dream of sending children on to be all that they can be – we need to actively connect with them, right from the start. 

If we wait until kindergarten, we have already lost many chances to learn. Teaching and learning begin – and must begin – at birth. They begin at home. And if you have, or care for, a young child, it has already begun for you and that child. 

You don’t need to make big changes in your life to give your child more of the tools he needs to succeed. You just need to remember how important you are, and make sure to interact with your child everyday in ways that help him learn. 

We all know that parents face many challenges today. In this economy, many people work several jobs at a time. If you’re a working parent, you don’t have enough hours in your day. During the limited time you do have with your children, what’s important is to try to do more of what you’re already doing. Talk to your children more when you are with them. Read to them – even if it’s only 15 minutes a day.  Sing a song. 

Research on how the brain grows calls our attention to the importance of doing these simple activities: talking, reading, singing and playing with a child. For a long time, we have known how significant these early years are for brain development and learning language. We know that children in some homes hear fewer words spoken to them than kids in other homes. And as a result, those who have fewer words spoken to them start out with smaller vocabularies.

Now we have new information about how children learn to speak and understand language. Researchers at Stanford University have found that, as early as two years old, some children are ahead and some are lagging behind in the way they process language. By the age of two, some children are already six months behind. And this gap in the way they understand and use language can lead to more serious gaps in the way they learn or succeed in school later on.

You can help your child stay ahead from the start. 

When you are cooking dinner, bathing your baby, or helping a toddler put on socks in the morning, just describe that activity out loud. Sing a song your mother taught you. Every word you say, every time you look directly at a child and speak, you are helping your child learn.  And this learning with you can take place anywhere – at the bus stop, in the bathroom, or at the breakfast table.

Here’s something very important to know: it’s fine to speak to your child in Spanish or whatever other language you speak best. Many Spanish-speaking parents worry that speaking Spanish will confuse the child. They are afraid that speaking Spanish will slow a child down, and make it harder to learn English.  Actually, it’s not very important which language you use to speak to your child.  It’s simply important to speak. When you speak to your child in your native language – or whatever language you are most comfortable using – it really pays off.

And here are a few more things to consider when talking to your infant or toddler:

  • Children benefit the most from hearing you talk when your words are directed to them. That’s more helpful than just hearing people having a conversation or talking on television.
  • When you are talking to an infant, use gestures or point at an object you are discussing. That will give your baby more information about what you are saying. When you speak, your child is trying to solve a puzzle to figure out what you mean. If you give additional clues by using hand gestures or pointing, it helps speed up the child’s ability to understand.
  • Talk to a child in the same words you’d use in conversation with an adult. Babies are encoding sound patterns from the moment they’re born, if not before birth. So speaking in a loving, playful and baby-friendly voice, but using real words more than baby talk from the beginning, can really make a big difference in helping them learn real language.

You have the ability to help shape your child’s future. Small changes in your daily routine can help promote lifelong learning and set your infant or toddler on the path to success in school and beyond.