Forty Carrots Family Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening families through educational programs, brings a major speaker to Sarasota annually; and this year, Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making: the Seven Essential Skills Every Child Needs, appeared by satellite, followed by Dr. Mimi Graham, Director of the Florida State University Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy, who emphasized the importance of the first five years of life. According to Dr. Graham, by examining the test scores of kindergarteners, we can most accurately predict a child's success in life. Therefore, we really must emphasize early learning to ensure the success of future generations. Forty Carrots offers parenting classes, including Welcome to Our World for newborns; Partners in Play classes (my daughter Daphne and I took a class called Down by the Bay, which included a group visit to Selby Gardens); and a preschool.
Galisnky's book discusses how it's crucial to a child's development that we work on seven essential life skills: focus and self-control; perspective-taking (understanding how others feel); communicating; making connections; critical thinking; taking on challenges; and self-directed engaged learning. Dr. Graham said that it's never too late to work on these skills! In fact, I focus on critical thinking and engaged learning with the college students who take my political science courses.
Even though it is never too late, it's also never too early! You can start with prenatal vitamins and a healthy diet when the child is in utero, and begin reading even before a child seems to understand.
As a policy expert, Dr. Graham focused on how important it is that we continue to fund early learning programs. She has worked with children in Healthy Start programs whose mothers have issues with addiction, so that the children will receive the care they need and so that the mothers receive parenting support. She also gave us shocking data from a 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley called "The Early Catastrophe," in which they studied 42 families from varied income brackets to determine why there is a major gap in educational achievement that is linked to a gap in income. They found that cumulatively, by age four, children from families on welfare hear 13 million fewer words than children from families they deemed "working-class," and 30 million fewer than the children of "professionals." (You can read about the study here.) This study shows that we have a whole generation of children who are facing the world with major obstacles in their way from the very beginning. Dr. Graham also stated that the United States ranks 21st among 28 industrialized countries in high school graduation rates.
If we expect to be prepared for the challenges of the 21st century that seem to be growing exponentially, we must focus on the growth and development of the youngest generation. Dr. Graham had everyone in the audience in the palm of their hand, nodding their heads in agreement. But she was primarily preaching to the converted. Unfortunately, she didn't give us a take-away other than to work with our own children to develop the seven essential tools all children need. That's the key: All children need these tools. With the election season in high gear, social welfare programs are frequently discussed as a target for potential cuts or elimination. My take-away from Dr. Graham's important talk is that we need to get this message to our current leaders to fuel success for our future leaders.