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Preparing babies to become future leaders

Often when we're facing an enormous challenge or working to overcome an obstacle, the first words of advice offered are to take baby steps.

It's good advice: Breaking down a seemingly insurmountable task into smaller pieces makes it easier to complete and moves us closer to accomplishing our goal.

Tarrin McGhee-200In Memphis, new, big, bold initiatives to cross major hurdles and heal our community's wounds - poverty, unemployment and undereducation – are taking shape every day.

These goals, which include creating a world-class education system and decreasing the poverty rate, may sound idealistic, but as with any huge undertaking the same principle applies:

Big change is possible if you start small.

The Urban Child Institute has launched a new campaign that builds on this concept and is intended to raise awareness and inspire a more proactive approach to some of the most pressing and persistent challenges in the Greater Memphis area.

The goal is to remind parents, caregivers, and everyone in our community that while big ideas matter, the key to achieving sustainable progress is Baby Small.

By directing more attention and resources to protecting the health and well-being of babies from conception to age three, we can ensure that every child is prepared to become a productive and contributing member of society, and improve the quality of life for generations to come.

Think about it.

Fifteen years from now, today's three year olds will reach adulthood, at which point they will be the local talent pool that Memphis, like any city, needs in order to progress and thrive.

In the meantime, we adults must take the baby steps necessary to make certain that when the time comes, Shelby County children are ready to rise to the task.

Now is the time to ensure that students are being prepared to become future leaders. Reaching that collective goal will continue to be difficult if children do not have the resources and support needed to succeed.

Thirty-nine percent of Memphis' children are living in poverty – double the national rate.

This statistic reflects one of the enormous obstacles that we must work together to overcome, and reveals an urgent need to try a different approach to change.

In any large metropolitan area such as Memphis, poverty, unemployment, and crime are linked to the education level of its citizenry. The Urban Child Institute suggests that such problems can often be traced back to early childhood.

Research shows that no period of life is more critical than the first three years. In order to break down barriers to individual success and drive community progress, the first step is to ensure that all children have a solid foundation for learning.

By the time a child reaches the age of three, the brain will reach 80 percent of its adult size.

According to The Urban Child Institute, the mental, emotional, and social skills and tools that are vital to reach one's full potential in school, career, and life are largely acquired before Kindergarten.

Studies reveal that early childhood education programs like pre-k and Head-Start help to promote optimal brain development, and can give a child an advantage over her peers. Pre-k enrollment also increases potential for high-school graduation and college attendance; better mental, physical and emotional health; avoidance of criminal activity; and even higher earnings.

Our community should strive to guarantee access to pre-k for every child. However, outside of the classroom there are other factors that contribute to school readiness and future success.

Positive experiences, in addition to home environment, family structure, and neighborhood quality influence how well-adjusted a child will become in school, society, and later in life.

For parents and caregivers of children under three, there are small, simple steps to take that will nurture healthy brain development. Touching, talking, reading, playing provide new and positive experiences, which help to ensure that connections in the brain that are associated with critical thinking, language and literacy, self-control, and self-confidence are strengthened, while those linked to anxiety, fear and uncertainty are weakened.

For non-parents, the same principles apply. You can strive to ensure that every interaction with a child creates a positive impression. However, if we each take things a step further and make a collective commitment to ensure that all children - not just the children in our lives - have an equal amount of attention and care, we can create a ripple effect of progress throughout our entire community.

By recognizing and addressing the root causes for many of our community's problems, we can drive positive change and create a new outlook for the future.

New investments in early childhood development and education are essential to improving academic outcomes and economic conditions.

In order to truly change Memphis, we must start baby small.

(To find out more, visit www.urbanchildinstitute.org/babysmall.)

(The New Tri-State Defender has partnered with The Urban Child Institute to make sure every child has the best chance for optimal brain development during the critical first three years of each child's life. This is one in a series of stories and columns in our campaign.)

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