6th Annual Baby Talk event

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — The 6th Annual Baby Talk Event got underway Thurs., Feb. 25 at Pinellas Technical College. Families, childcare providers and agencies that serve higher-risk children were all in attendance to learn about strengthening school readiness.

In 2010, Concerned Organizations for Quality Education of Black Students (COQEBS) embarked on an effort to close the gap from a community perspective and work with the St. Pete campus of the University of South Florida’s research department to determine what could be done to engage parents, community and child care providers.

This community initiative and collaboration is intended to provide families with infants/toddlers with activities they could use at home to support socio-emotional, brain development and bonding.

COQEBS  member Dr. Goliath Davis  referenced the Tampa Bay Times series “Failure Factories,” in which they chronicled education at five area elementary schools, focusing not only on the achievement gap, but also issues such as African-American children receiving a greater number of suspensions.

“We want to go from failure factories and the problems that we’re having in those schools and emphasize why this particular initiative is important,” Davis said, referring to the Baby Talk initiative.

This initiative aims to help children from birth rather than waiting until they begin attending preschool, but the parents have to be actively involved in order to turn around the “failure factory mentality,” he pointed out.

He asked the audience if they remember the days before everyone had a television set. Davis said back then parents had to get creative.

“All of that hugging and loving and crawling and exploring they used to have prior to TV, it all went away,” he said, adding that the parent-child interaction that is so important in preparing a child for school.  This dependence on technology continues today in the form of smart phones and computers, and even texting takes us to another level of being impersonal.

Kori Monroe, owner of Irok Construction, was not only a teenaged father but had three children by the time he was 21. He was also a high school dropout.

“That’s what I was,” he told the crowd. “That’s what I come from.”

But now he has a degree in construction engineering technology and owns his construction business. The circumstances and situations people come up through really don’t define who they are and what they can become, he averred.

Using the Chinese bamboo tree as a metaphor, Monroe explained that once it is planted, it takes four years before you can see anything come out of the ground. But in that fifth year it can grow up to 90 feet in five weeks. This is how he regards the early stages of a child’s life. Though pregnant mothers know what goes into the nurturing of a baby that they are still carrying, they must take that same initiative in nurturing the baby in every way once it begins to explore the world.

“We’ve got to hold them to make sure that they are loved,” he said, “and they know that they are loved!”

Dr. James P. McHale of USFSP Family Study Center noted that studies have shown that the educational process for children starts well before kindergarten. Research in the last decade indicates that 80-85 percent of a child’s brain development is done by the age of three.

“We had been missing this very, very important opportunity during those early years from birth to age three to be doing all we could to help promote early brain development, promote social and emotional competencies.”

He echoed Davis’ comments about the lack of personal interaction between children and their parents or even the world around them due to the prevalence of computers and smart phones in today’s culture.

McHale also noted that on average by age three, economically advantaged children know about 1,100 words while economically disadvantaged children know only about 500 words.

“This is not a race issue,” he pointed out, “this is an issue that has to do with socio-economic status.”

Actually holding your baby and talking to your baby is going to close the word gap, he said. Reading is very important, and parents should be reading to their children from their very first day of life. Reading is talking to kids and not talking with them. So in addition to reading, parents need to communicate on a relationship-based level.

What a teacher says in the classroom is so important. It is the extent to which they possess social and emotional skills. To form close relationships with other people, a child needs to enjoy interacting with others, trust others to protect them, seek and respond to attention from others and make and keep friends.

The child who has the capacity to do these things upon entering a preschool or daycare is going to feel much safer and secure in that setting and ready to learn. The social and emotional skills are the foundation for cognitive skills.

Children should be able to show many emotions, and we should know what those emotions are. Infants cannot tell us with words how they feel so parents must be able to label the child’s emotions. It’s a big part of relationship-based caregiving, he said.

Exploring environments is crucial, McHale noted. Engineers and architects, for example, are people who are curious to explore and think outside the box. We want our kids to be able to do that, he stressed. And this comes from the child’s curiosity.

“We want our children to actively explore new places, to discover new things,” he attested. “And quite honestly, the computer is one of the worst things that you can give a baby.”

They need to explore the world around them and are far more inventive when doing so. Even if they are simply discovering what household items can do such as spoons, pots or a pans.

Social and emotional skills are crucial for school readiness, and children who exhibit these skills are better able to pay attention in class, follow instructions, stay in their seats, stick to the task that the teacher has given them to do, try new things and solve problems. Children who are able to explore early on tend to be more excited about what they can absorb when they start attending school. They are also more likely to listen and stay focused.

African-American children come to preschool better equipped with certain skills over other children, McHale said, such as social confidence. He added that low-income African-American preschoolers exhibit strong social confidence skills such as those required for sustaining peer interactions that have been shown to promote school readiness.

“This is a strength,” he said, “this is one of the things that our children come to school able and capable of doing already from the interactions they have not just with their parents and grandparents but the other children in their neighborhood who are helping them to develop strong skills.”

African-American children also tend to have very strong oral narrative skills, he said. If they hear stories at a young age then they develop those storytelling skills as well. This leads to success in reading skills.

For very young children around a year old, those kids who are on track are those who are showing excitement and smiling, are able to accept comfort from familiar adults and who are curious about other people. Making eye contact, talking back to small children, getting down on the floor with them when they’re trying to communicate something to you—these are the kinds of “dialogues” that promote responsiveness and brain development in children. Even when parents are changing a baby’s diaper, as an example, these are times that can be used for a dialogue, which can in turn increase the number of words the baby hear.

Parents who come from work should set aside at least 20 minutes of one-on-one time to spend exclusively with their children.

“We call that ‘floor time,’ especially for babies,” McHale remarked. “That one-on-one time is a time that is really, really important for children birth to age three.”

He noted that outside factors such as unexpected bills or an angry boss at work may stress parents to the point where the child suffers as a result. The parents must take care of themselves in order to properly take care of their children, and having some support is very helpful, especially when you have someone who can take the baby when you need to step away for a bit.

“You do a better job with your kids when you’re doing a better job with yourself,” he said.

Healthy Start at All Children’s Hospital—Johns Hopkins Medicine sponsored the events along with community partners such as Juvenile Welfare Board, Pinellas County Schools, R’Club, the City of St. Petersburg, Community EFX, Congresswoman Kathy Castor and many more made the evening a success.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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