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Caregivers can make a difference

Poor kids have a harder time in all kinds of ways than children of families with greater means. That's hardly news. Also, scientists have long since documented that poverty and stress affect the very development of children's brains.

But a new report from researchers in St. Louis adds to that data, and highlights this bit of evidence: Caregivers make a difference.

Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine examined brain scans and evaluations of children ages 3 to 6 over several years, according to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Pediatrics.

They found that poverty was associated with smaller developments in sections of children's brains. Whether children had supportive or hostile caregivers and whether children experienced stressful life events also made a difference.

Researchers concluded that improved care for young children should be a public health target for preventing future problems.

That means the next time you hear people discussing how to improve or expand early childhood care or education, they are not just discussing babysitting. They are not just talking about short-term employment for teachers. The issue is literally about nurturing children's healthy brain development that will influence the trajectory of their lives. At the extreme ends of the range, it could mean the difference between whether they thrive in school or drop out, go to jail or live gainfully employed, contented lives.

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Speaking of children and poverty, Child Trends points out this week that infants and toddlers have the highest rates of poverty of any age group in the country. One-fourth, or about three million infants and toddlers, live in families below the federal poverty line. One in eight lives in a family that subsists on below half the federal poverty level. That is a lot of early brain development at risk right there. While the majority of their mothers work, employment can bring its own hazards for parents who can't get good child care.

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One of the best things ever tried and proven to help mitigate the effects of poverty, isolation and unprepared parents are home visitors. I've written about them many times, and it doesn't seem to matter whether a program comes from a health or education point of view. Good ones help parents become the kind of parents they aspire to be. The parents, in turn, rear children who are healthier and better able to take advantage of opportunities at school and beyond.

But again, Child Trends points out that of children under age 3 who could benefit from a home visit, only one in four receives it. Other helpful services also fail to reach those who need them, including developmental screenings, child care subsidies, Early Head Start and health insurance.

Think of this the next time someone natters on to you about wasteful spending or the undeserving poor. It is difficult to imagine what a child should have accomplished by age 3 to merit a friend's help, or even a stranger's.

Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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