Brain Awareness Night - Speaker Spotlight: Dr. J. Helen Perkins

On March 12, The Urban Child Institute will host our annual Brain Awareness Night. This year the topic will be literacy and language development in the early years, and we are pleased to welcome Dr. J. Helen Perkins as one of our two speakers. For Dr. Perkins, a professor at the University of Memphis, interest in literacy began at an early age.

Brain Awareness Night Speaker Spotlight: Dr. J. Helen Perkins, Ed.D. Tweet this!

“When I was in third grade I came home from school and announced to my parents that I was going to be a reading teacher,” says Dr. Perkins. “I was going to teach everybody all over the world to read because it concerned me at such a young age that people were not reading like I was reading.”

Now an Associate Professor of Reading & Urban Literacy, Dr. Perkins has a slightly larger audience. In addition to her students, she serves as the President of the Association of Literacy Educators & Researchers and the Board Chair of Porter Leath, a non-profit that serves at-risk children and families. Although Dr. Perkins is involved in the community in a number of ways, her work ultimately comes down to helping parents and teachers excel in educating children by implementing research-proven strategies.

“We don’t have time to waste,” says Dr. Perkins, “so what are best practices that research indicates work really well with children in poverty? What can we do as teachers, educators, parents, and administrators to expedite literacy by identifying these best practices?”

Literacy Begins Early

As we know, the earlier that parents and teachers begin implementing these strategies, the better off children will be in the long run. While it may be hard to believe, even literacy and language skills begin to develop in those first three years.

“We know that by age 3 the brain will reach 80% of its adult size, so that’s the time for us to really be building those foundations for children so that when they enter Kindergarten they have the skills and strategies they need to be successful,” says Dr. Perkins. “There’s so much research to support this—we just need to do what’s best to help the child because the brain is ready and wired to learn!”

Fortunately, our job as parents and caregivers is pretty simple in this regard. Helping children develop literacy and language skills in their earliest years requires not much more than intentionality and time.

“There are so many small things that we can do,” says Dr. Perkins. “But what I’m discovering through working with parents is that a lot of time they just don’t know what these things are, and that’s something that we can do as a community—let parents know that it’s not just about giving commands to children, but it’s actually talking with them, reading with them, writing with them.”

This means talking to babies while changing their diapers, making eye contact and staying close enough that they can watch the way the lips move, having a conversation with children about the content of a book while reading together, and even engaging infants during chores like grocery shopping. Research shows that even these routine tasks can serve as opportunities for a child’s cognitive development. While easy to implement, these activities are not always intuitive.

“We cannot assume that parents know these strategies,” says Dr. Perkins, “so we as a community need to make sure they learn them and that we emphasize and re-emphasize them.”

Literacy Matters for Everyone

In the end, the benefits of strong literacy and language skills affect not only children and their parents, but our community as a whole. According to research, there is a strong correlation between crime and illiteracy, and the dropout rate is high among students who struggle with literacy.

“That’s why right now in Shelby County we’re really focusing on literacy, not only from birth to 4th grade, but throughout the 12th grade,” says Dr. Perkins. “Usually a child that is successful in school starting out will continue to be successful and graduate from high school. While they may not want to go to college, there are other skills they can learn, but they have to have the academic background. If they’re working they’re going to be giving back to the community.”

UPDATE: Brain Awareness Night 2015 was a big success! Now everyone can learn practical literacy-building guidance from Dr. O’Neill and Dr. Perkins by watching videos of their presentations, reading the presentation transcripts or checking out their slides!