In 2008, JCCI began a conversation about babies' basic needs. In 2011, that conversation had expanded to explore how babies in our community can truly thrive. In these pages, we have focused our attention on the period of most rapid brain development, from birth through age three, and the impact of early learning experiences on future success. Newborns, infants, and toddlers are vulnerable and rich with developmental potential. However, in Duval County, at least 30 percent of children entering kindergarten are not passing the test that shows they are prepared for school learning; 30 percent of our third graders are not passing the FCAT; and 30 percent of our high school students are not graduating on time.
By the time children reach kindergarten, if we have let the birth-through-three educational opportunity sail by, school becomes remediation. Success in kindergarten and beyond must begin with a safe, stimulating, responsive babyhood that literally shapes gene expression and brain structure for the better. Academic—and life—success requires successful brain development, healthy cognitive and physical, emotional, social, and mental development—each of which reinforces the other—from the very start. The window of opportunity opens with a newborn's first breath.
Some well-meaning parents scatter the hottest blinking, beeping "learning" toys around a toddler, which is about as likely to facilitate learning as rubbing books about car repair on your forehead is to teach you how to change your transmission. If a baby does not receive responsive attention, brain growth is actually stunted. Developing brains require cuddling, eye contact and live two-way conversation—your words and their coos or babble—stories, and play.
We know not to let a teething toddler gnaw on a vintage crib rail because lead paint causes brain damage. We also know to put newborns to sleep on their backs because successful campaigns have taught us that doing so lowers risks of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. How do we know whether to question a popular parenting book—or a pediatrician—advising letting a three-month-old "cry it out" for the 4 a.m. feeding, flooding the baby with brain-damaging stress hormones, impairing the baby's stress response system? Navigating a rocky sea of well-intentioned but often ill-informed advice and marketed materials is challenging, and habitual "I know best" mindsets can be problematic.
Likewise, well-intentioned policies target "at-risk" families but have waiting lists or miss the many families who do not meet established criteria. We know better, so we have to do better to move our community's "bell curve"—in which a third of our community is failing at living productive lives, most are just getting by, and only a few are excelling—to a rising wave of learning outcomes, skewed toward true school readiness by kindergarten--and therefore, through to graduation and out into the workforce. We must better educate our health and child care professionals, parents and caregivers, policymakers, and community members. We must promote coordination of academic and training resources for higher standards of professional development in children's services and provide access to the best information available to parents, caregivers and healthcare providers.
Through philanthropic and public funding, an awareness campaign, partnerships between local institutions and nonprofit agencies, an independent children's services council, and an independent advocate for children's issues, we can support policies and practices that create a collaborative system of care addressing the whole child's development. It is time for our community to become a place where all newborns, infants, and toddlers thrive. Jacksonville can become a child-friendly city, a community dedicated to creating the rising tide that lifts all boats, steering our children toward but lifelong success. We can all be thriving.