Getting Down to Business with Brain Development

No one in our community should care more about optimal brain development for our youngest children than our business leaders.

Their competitiveness, their profits, their tax burdens, and ultimately, their corporate futures depend on it. The fact is that there are no economic strategies that pay greater returns on investment than strategies to give every child a fair start in life.

After all, the job readiness of the men and women filling out applications in corporate HR departments was largely shaped before they were five years old. It was then that the building blocks for their social skills, academic performance, and workforce abilities were laid.

It is no secret that our labor force must be better if our region is to compete in a knowledge economy. It is no secret that cities that are the most successful today are those with better-educated, job-ready workers. It is no secret that our largest employers complain that too many job applicants are functionally illiterate.

Today, workers no longer just need to learn the three R’s – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. Now, there is a fourth R – reasoning – and jobs are moving to cities where workers are smarter and more innovative.

These workers are the lifeblood for companies fighting to prosper in today’s highly competitive economy, and development of the next generation of workers begins with maximum development of the youngest children’s brains now. We may be dealing with the workforce challenges of Memphis and Shelby County now, but they began years earlier. By their third birthdays, children can begin to lag behind their peers in understanding words and numbers and also social skills such age appropriate peer interaction, attention span, and self-regulation.

Children whose parents are teenagers, who live in dire poverty, who are frequently moving, poorly nourished, and who live in high-stress environments face significant odds against graduating from high school and taking their places as highly sought after workers.

We’ve been tracking trends and publishing the facts about our children since our first Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County in 2006. As the 2011 Data Book shows, the statistics continue to be sobering and troubling, and without greater attention to the brain development of our youngest children and changing the existing trends, the Data Book projects a disturbing snapshot of our city’s workforce for the future.

There is so much that we have to get right, particularly correcting the imbalance in educational funding. Our research shows that at the time when children’s brains growing most rapidly, the period between birth and three years of age, we are spending just under three percent of educational funding on them.

It’s a simple matter of dollars and cents. We can pay now with the smartest investment or we can pay more later with higher taxes for remedial education, job training, jail cells, and skill development. The cost-benefit ratio for interventions for the most at-risk children is 6 to 1, according to our Class of 2025 research.

That’s a ROI that any smart business would pursue.