If you’re agonizing over picking the perfect preschool or caregiver for your child, you may be surprised to learn that you’ve already found your child’s first – and best – teacher: You.
Recent brain research shows that by the time a child reaches age 3, his brain growth is 80 percent complete. By age 5, and the start of kindergarten, that number has already reached 90 percent. Billions of neural connections form during the earliest years or are lost and don’t come back.
“Parents are their child’s first teacher,” says Diane Levin, chief deputy director of First 5 California. “They need to understand that education and brain development don’t start when a child goes to school. It starts on Day 1 at home.”
That’s why First 5 California, a state agency focused on California’s youngest children and funded by tobacco taxes, started the Talk. Read. Sing. campaign in 2014. Similar programs are cropping up across the country.
Such simple actions are critical, Levin says, in setting children up for success in school and in life.
One oft-cited study showed that low-income children know 30 million fewer words at age 4 than their wealthier counterparts, a “word gap” First 5 and other organizations aim to reduce.
With a “language-rich environment” at home, “by the time you go to school, you’re ready to learn,” Levin says. “If you don’t have that, you start out already behind your peers. Kids who start out behind are seldom able to catch up. … It’s much better to prevent the achievement gap than to fix it down the road.”
Struggling readers are more likely to drop out of school, and even be incarcerated, studies show.
Levin says it’s easy to talk and sing to your baby, and it’s important to start reading to a child long before you think they understand.
“Talk about your day and what your baby means to you. You’re not only building their vocabulary, you’re bonding with your baby,” she says. “Studies show how the brain fires up and tunes in when a child hears a voice, especially a parent’s voice. It’s not the same thing at all when a child is hearing the television and someone is not engaging with them.”
“As babies get a little bit older and can sit on your lap and watch you read and turn the pages of books, they start to understand that the symbols on a page match to the language you’re speaking,” Levin adds.
Get Started
The multimedia Talk. Read. Sing. campaign – with ads on TV, radio, social media and more – stresses the importance of these early interactions and directs parents to First 5 California’s website (www.first5california.com) for information, tips, activities, videos and more.
For in-person guidance, parents in Santa Clara County can check out SEEDS of Early Literacy workshops offered by First 5 Santa Clara County at its 12 Family Resource Centers throughout the county. The series of five free classes, which include free childcare, is among the programs offered for families with children under age 6, including parenting classes and parent-child activities. The early literacy classes are also offered for licensed family childcare providers. For locations and schedules, visit www.first5kids.org/frc.
“From the moment babies are born, we should be engaging in conversation with them,” says Laura Buzo, program director for First 5 Santa Clara County. “It sounds easy and basic, but sometimes parents need to understand the importance of early literacy and early language development and school readiness.”
“Sometimes it doesn’t come naturally. How you read to a 2-year-old is not the same as reading to a 6-month-old or a 5-year-old,” Buzo adds. And “when you consistently communicate with a child – engaging a child in conversation, not just a directive like ‘pick up your toys’ – meaningful conversations encourage a child to think, but also to expand their verbal and conversation skills.”
Education researchers at Stanford University are attempting to impart some of the same parenting skills – without the need to attend a class.
Researchers at The Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) have created a text messaging program, Ready4K, that sends three messages a week to parents giving them a fact, a tip and a follow-up on early literacy skills linked to state educational standards and kindergarten preparedness.
For instance, a week’s worth of texts might start with “FACT: Bath time is great for teaching your child important skills for K. Start by asking: What are the things we need for bath time. Why?” The next might say: “TIP: When you’re bathing your child, point out the letters on shampoo bottles. Ask your child to name them and the sounds they make,” followed by “GROWTH: Keep using bath time to prepare your child 4K! Ask: What rhymes with tub (cub, rub), soap (rope, hope) and bubble (double, trouble)?
When piloted with preschoolers in the San Francisco Unified School District during the 2014-15 school year, researchers found 4-year-olds whose parents received the texts gained the equivalent of two to three additional months of learning in some areas of early literacy by the end of the school year.
“Parents reported engaging in more home literacy activities – reciting nursery rhymes, looking at pictures in books, showing how different parts of a book work,” says Ben York, executive director of CEPA Labs and co-creator of Ready4K. “Teachers also reported that Ready4K parents were more involved.”
The program is now reaching more than 33,000 families in 20 states enrolled through school districts and other organizations, and it’s growing quickly. Ready4K is now testing texts on early math skills and social-emotional learning.
“There’s overwhelming evidence that high-quality home learning environments have positive implications on child development and later-in-life economic outcomes,” says York. But “to date, parenting programs haven’t been successful in addressing those gaps. They’ve required a tremendous amount of time and effort from parents.”
The beauty of a text is that it can reach almost anyone, anywhere, with quick and easy-to-follow information.
“Our tips are highly specific,” York says. “We integrate them with what we view as widespread family routines, and they don’t require additional resources. We point out everyday learning opportunities to families.”
Remember to keep an eye out for those everyday opportunities to help set your child on the path to learning. After all, you are your child’s first teacher.
 Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
Encourage Strong Language Skills
Talk to your child. Research shows the more parents talk with their children, the larger vocabularies those children develop. Use everyday moments – in the car, at the grocery store, during bath time – to talk to your child and teach him about the world around him.
Be a good listener. As your child begins to babble and say his first words, be sure to listen, make eye contact and respond. This will help encourage him to continue.
Read together every day. Ask questions as you read and talk about the pictures. Help your child make connections, such as how the picture of a cat in a story looks like the neighbor’s pet.
Use repetition as a learning technique. Read the same stories over and over again to create familiarity with the words and phrases.
Play with your child. Acting out storybooks, drawing pictures, listening to music and singing songs are all great ways to stimulate language and literacy development.
Stay positive. If your child says a word incorrectly, simply repeat the word with the correct pronunciation. Offer encouragement and respond positively to your child’s efforts, rather than focusing on mistakes.
: Make Reading Part of Daily Life
• Read your shopping list with your child and ask him to help you find the items.
• Read the food labels on everything from soup cans to cereal boxes.
• Read road signs and billboards when you’re out driving.
• Bring books with you wherever you go. Keep a few books in your diaper bag to fill time waiting at the doctor’s office or a bus stop.
• Arrange day trips related to a book you just read. For example, if your child enjoyed a story about fire trucks, take a trip to your local fire station.
• Visit your local library often and encourage your child to get a free library card. Many libraries offer activities for kids, including free storytimes.
For more tips, visit www.first5california.com.


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