Why Do We Believe Strengthening Brains Is the Right Strategy?

For the past several days, I have been writing pieces that say that if we want to reduce the number of people in prison and reduce the number of people who drop out of school because they can't read, we need to help children from birth to three years old exercise their brains.

Why have I believed that need to be true?

The facts are pretty clear about how many people we put in jail in this country. We imprison three or four times as many people than any other western country.

That data can be found in multiple sources -- but a very good one is Walmsley's "World Prison Population List," produced by the International Centre for Prison Studies.

Another point I have made in these communications is that the people who are behind bars in this country either read poorly or can't read at all. I have stated that 70 percent of our prisons fit that category and that 85 percent of the children in our juvenile justice system either read poorly or can't read at all.

That data came from Literacy Behind Bars -- Results from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy Prison Survey and the U.S. Department of Education.

I have also stated that our children have a golden time of learning in the first three years of life when their brains can be exercised and strengthened. Again, there are multiple studies about early childhood development -- including a seminal Institute of Medicine report in 2000 -- but the one that is probably the best source is the remarkable work done by Dr. Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington. Links to two of her lectures follow. She had done miraculous and stunning work and is a gift to the nation.

A more recent study done at the Washington University in St. Louis shared that the sizes of children's brains were increased by that early stimulation and exercise.

Another important reference source addressed the point that the children with lower reading levels and less early childhood support are 40 percent more likely to get pregnant while in school, 60 percent more likely to drop out of school, and more than 70 percent more likely to go to jail.

That came from Ounce of Prevention's summary "Why Early Childhood Investments Work."

The information about the fact that the children who are most ready to learn to read have been read to on average of 1700 hours from birth to kindergarten and the children who are least prepared have been read to less than 30 hours in the same years came from Marilyn Jager Adams' MIT press book entitled "Beginning to Read."

So if you wonder about the sources, check them out. Dr. Kuhl's video lectures are absolutely amazing. You can do everyone who is about to have a child a huge favor by having them watch her lectures and learn what she has learned here, and here.

We now know some very important things that we need to do.

In my book, Ending Racial, Ethnic and Cultural Disparities, I wrote that major disparities exist in care delivery in the U.S. I described the causes of those disparities as being a blend of bias, behavior and biology. Those same three key elements exist relative to the brain development of our youngest children -- and we need to step up to the challenge of ending the bias, taking advantage of the biology, and introducing behaviors that can change the life of each child.

We need to save our children who aren't getting the right level of mental exercise from the consequences of that reality.

We are a good nation that wants to help our children.

It's time for us to provide some of that help now. Check out the data.

The points are clear and the time to act is now.