A New Year's Resolution

It's the time of year when we look back at the past year and make resolutions for the new one. It's no different at The Urban Child Institute, as we step back to consider what has been done for children's brain development in 2011 and what our plans will be for 2012.

First, let's look back at the old year.

We have worked hard in 2011 to spread the word that there are no strategies – economic, social, academic, and personal – that pay greater returns on investment than those aimed at giving every child, regardless of where they live and what their parents earn, a fair start in life. It's why we are relentless about the importance of optimal brain development in the first three years of a child's life.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton's city of choice vision is compelling, but as he points out, it doesn't primarily mean that people with choices (because of education or income) chose to live, work, and raise their families here. More to the point, he says rightly that it's about giving every person in our community choices for the future.

The cornerstones for a city of choice are laid during the first few years of our children's lives. The research is unequivocal. Children with healthy brain development have the opportunity for better choices that come with stronger learning and social skills, better problem-solving, healthier relationships, and more self-esteem.

During his reelection campaign, Mayor Wharton said that early childhood development will be a priority for his next term in office. Meanwhile, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell demonstrated a deep commitment in backing a clear agenda for early childhood issues, and we have been pleased to meet with him as he continues to shape his plan of action. The mayors are powerful advocates for the message of early brain development.

In support of the early brain development message, we issued our 6th annual Databook: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County in August. It is a valuable compendium on the pivotal factors shaping the lives of our young children, and we encourage anyone who wants to make a difference in our community's future to read it.

Our research continues to define the challenges for Memphis and Shelby County, but it also continues to spotlight the actions that can be taken to prepare our youngest children to learn, such as expanding Early Head Start and ensuring that every child has high-quality child care. Now, our educational spending is upside down. In the first three years of a child's life, when his brain is growing to 80% of its adult size and the return on investment is at its greatest, only 2.5% of public investment in education at all levels is being spent to make sure children have optimal brain development and are ready for school.

But there's no teacher more important in a child's life than her first teacher – her parents and family – because much of children's development depends on the ability of their parents to provide close, dependable, responsive relationships that encourage exploration, vocabulary development, and creative connections between ideas. That's why we advocate for the simple initiative of Touch, Talk, Read, Play - simple things that are life changing for children. These are every day things that busy parents, teachers, and grandparents can do and it's why we partner with Neighborhood Christian Center and others to spread the message about Touch, Talk, Read, Play.

As we assess 2011, we are grateful to those of you who have become advocates for giving our children their competitive advantage – a brain wired for future success. In the new year, our advocacy for children will need to be ramped up as tight budgets often leave children as the first victims of service cuts.

The best news for the new year is that we know what we can do to give each child a fair start in life, but it takes all of us to lobby elected officials, attend school meetings, convene church meetings, and take the brain development message to neighborhood meetings.

We have the power in our own hands to turn the science about brain development into action that gives our children their best chances for success. That's why our New Year's resolution is that in 2012, our actions result in this brand: Memphis: A City That Cares For Its Children.

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