Children's First Teachers Set the Path

Before formal schooling begins, parents and caregivers have a profound effect on a child's school readiness and academic success.

Right now the talk of education in the Mid-South is all about funding, and more specifically how there isn't enough to go around. It seems obvious that our children are our community's future and therefore our schools must be well funded, but most of us know running a government is far more complicated than cutting the pie and passing out slices.

So now the debates rage on: Who will run what school system? Which students will be served by what community? Where do we find the money? Like almost every other city in today's economically compromised world, leaders in Memphis and Shelby County are being forced to navigate through conflicting viewpoints to reach solutions that do the most good for younger citizens.

But our children's education, and thus our city's future, aren't sitting idle as plans are being made. Any parent or caregiver of young children knows that these human bundles of potential aren't sitting still; their development isn't waiting on anybody.

The Urban Child Institute's 2011 Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County has recently appeared around offices and in mailboxes, representing the most current research in early childhood development and packed with raw data we can use to prepare our kids for a successful future.

According to the Institute's data, the human brain does 80 percent of its growing in the first three years of a child's life. The development that happens in this rather short window of 36 months paves the way for your child's life of learning. The brain is sprouting neural pathways in response to experiences, and at age 2 your child will have up to twice as many active synapses as your adult brain. Those synapses used and nurtured will stay, those neglected will wither and die, a natural and necessary process known as pruning.

This explosive period of growth in your child's brain occurs before much formal schooling happens. While this doesn't dilute the challenge of having an education system in a state of transition, it does empower parents and caregivers, casting us as our children's first and most important teachers. School readiness and academic success later in life are based on skills children learn in their first years of life.

Unfortunately, many children in the Mid-South, as in other parts of the world, enter kindergarten with a social and cognitive development deficit. According to research cited in the Data Book, over one-third of children in the U.S. are not prepared when they enter kindergarten.

This has very little to do with the state of a community's school system, but rather the child's life at home before reaching school age. In a recent policy brief from the Urban Child Institute and Memphis City Schools, a strong correlation was found between family income and school readiness. Generally, kids from families with higher incomes were better prepared when they entered kindergarten.

But the same study indicates that the relationship between income and school readiness is not fixed. A substantial number of children from low-income families and neighborhoods reach kindergarten well prepared. Preparing Mid-South students for a life of academic success, and hopefully success as a working adult, is effectively done at all income levels.

In an age when we are concentrating wisely on the issue of homeland security and heroism, nothing is more important than school readiness and educated workers and the heroic work taking place in our families and communities to make it happen.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the event that changed everything. We live in a different world than the one that existed on Sept. 10, 2001, and in many ways we've just begun to adapt to our new reality. However, as parents and caregivers our roles are largely unchanged. Knowing how to make the most effective impact as our children's first teachers is key to our collective success as a community.

Nancy Coffee is president and CEO of the Leadership Academy.

This is one in a series of monthly guest columns on the importance of public/private investment in early childhood. For more information, please contact us.

This article originally appeared in the Commercial Appeal, and is reprinted with permission.