Jack Ryan: Low-cost child development

By JACK RYAN ENTERPRISE JOURNAL,

When the state’s public school district ratings get released each fall and too many of them are discouragingly low, it’s worth remembering that there are plenty of reasons for this below-average academic performance.

A new report focuses on one of the big ones.

Mississippi Thrive!, a partnership between Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center and the University of Mississippi Medical Center, talked to families of children aged 5 or younger about the development of their children.

It is discouraging, but perhaps not surprising, that 52 percent of the 322 children in the pilot program needed follow-up development care or monitoring.

Put another way, that means half of the children in the pilot program aren’t developing basic skills as rapidly as they should.

This is simple stuff, such as the ability to drink from a sippy cup at 18 months, to say two-word or four-word sentences at age 2, or to catch a bouncing ball at age 4.

A professor of child development at UMMC said the goal of the pilot project is to track the skills of the children, which are called developmental milestones, and then connect their families with necessary services to help the kids who have fallen behind.

Attention to young children is critical to their proper development. The professor, Dr. Susan Buttross, said in a UMMC press release that a child’s brain triples in size during the first three years of life, and by age 4 is almost the size of an adult’s brain.

UMMC said that only one child out of every 20 in Mississippi is diagnosed with some type of developmental delay, while the national rate is one child in five. Unfortunately, this does not mean that Mississippi is doing a better job in the early-childhood years. Almost certainly, it means that fewer children in this state are being checked for those developmental milestones.

The good news is that it’s easy and inexpensive for families and caregivers to help a very young child get started. Buttross said talking or singing to a baby, whose brain at that age is basically a sponge soaking up experiences, are the best ways to stimulate development.

Research also has shown that children who get early-learning opportunities, even something as simple as being talked, read or sung to, wind up being better prepared for school. They have broader vocabularies and can form better relationships with classmates.

If there was more early preparation of this nature, typically from parents or other relatives, it would translate into fewer children starting kindergarten or first grade behind in their development.

Schools spend years trying to help these children catch up with their peers, and those efforts could instead be focused on pushing Mississippi students to catch up with the rest of the country.

Pilot programs that spread statewide would certainly help children develop. But the easiest, most basic solution is so obvious. It’s truly a shame that it’s so often overlooked.

Jack Ryan, Enterprise-Journal

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