Collective Action is Benefiting Shelby's Youngest

This month The Urban Child Institute will release the eighth edition of the Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County. It is intended to provide community stakeholders with data that will support a wide range of efforts to improve the well-being of all children in the county.

Most Shelby Countians are aware that our children encounter numerous barriers to optimal development. Over half of Shelby County children face economic hardship, a trend that has not improved in the past decade. The link between poverty and negative child outcomes is one of the most consistent findings in the literature on child development. Poor and low-income children's lives often involve unsafe neighborhoods, inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, and low-quality and unstable child care. Poverty increases parents' stress and decreases their ability to provide a stimulating environment and engage in optimal parenting practices.

Additionally, about 12 percent of all families are headed by an adult with less than a high school diploma. Parental education is a strong predictor of children's language, cognitive and academic development. More educated parents use richer language with their children and create more stimulating home environments.

Further, too many children live in "food deserts" — neighborhoods that lack convenient access to healthy food options. Nutrition has been called the single greatest environmental influence on babies in the womb and during infancy, and it remains essential throughout the first years of life. A proper balance of nutrients in this formative period is critical for normal brain development.

Despite these persistent risks, many children thrive. The Data Book aims to explore the protective factors that buffer children from the effects of poverty and other threats. Positive parenting is one such protective factor. Responsive, nurturing parenting in early childhood promotes optimal brain development. Parents who touch, talk, read and play with their babies help establish the brain networks that support cognitive skills, language abilities and social development. Harsh, unresponsive parenting, on the other hand, can produce measurable differences in children's brain activity.

Other protective factors include high-quality child care and early education. Their long-term positive effects include improved cognitive and social skills. For children with home environments that place them at risk of low achievement, high-quality center-based child care can promote reading and math abilities in the elementary years.

These protective factors represent an opportunity for our community to create policies that help our children thrive.

This year's health chapter shows that infant mortality has declined; fewer mothers report receiving no prenatal care; and the teen birth rate has declined 26 percent since 2008. The education chapter highlights the benefits of Memphis City Schools prekindergarten — a program being threatened by budget cuts. Data show that during the MCS Pre-K school year, performance gaps between higher-risk and lower-risk children were substantially reduced.

Each year, the Data Book highlights a "promising practice" that is being implemented in our community for the improved well-being of our children. This year, The Urban Child Institute was pleased to work with the Memphis Child Advocacy Center, which has been at the forefront of combating child sexual abuse for the past 20 years. The center's work includes the counseling and treatment of victimized children as well as community-wide prevention efforts.

The improvements and gains reported in this year's Data Book are not happenstance, but rather are due to the intentional, collective focus of community stakeholders. As a community, we will have tough fiscal decisions to make in the near future. Research clearly demonstrates that the public investments that communities make in the earliest years of life — such as high-quality child care and home visitation — garner the greatest societal returns.

Policies that promote safe, stable and nurturing experiences in early life lead to higher academic achievement, better health outcomes and increased financial security across the life span. Furthermore, children who are supported by programs such as high-quality child care and home visitation are less likely to fall behind in school and to become involved in risky teen behaviors such as smoking, drinking and early sexual activity. They are also less likely to engage in criminal behavior and to become reliant on welfare assistance later in life.

Children don't have a public voice; therefore it's imperative that we take advantage of the best available data and research to make well-informed decisions that protect our children and advance our community.

This article was originally published by the Commercial Appeal: