By Cinde Ingram, Enterprise Staff Writer
Getting every child ready to succeed in school was the common goal that brought together more than 400 Guilford County parents and professionals Thursday at the Koury Convention Center.
At the Get Ready Guilford Early Childhood Summit, participants agreed to take on a 100-day challenge to work on ways to improve the futures of Guilford County’s youngest children.
Education represents the pathway out of poverty for children, but that promise is null and void for some children who start so far behind that they will never catch up, said Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading and senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “There is a significant and growing number of children who have fallen beneath the reach of schools.”
He asked whether it’s any surprise so many juveniles and adults in the criminal justice system can’t read.
“When we teach a kid to read, they become an ally,” Smith said. “They become an advocate of their own future.”
Healthy childhood development starts with good prenatal care, which many lower-income families do not receive. The right side of the infant brain controls emotions and develops faster than the left, said keynote speaker Kate Gallagher, clinical associate professor with the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. Babies cry in response to negative emotions and uncomfortable stresses, including pain and hunger. Thinking skills are impaired, and babies don’t learn as well when they have more negative than positive exchanges, which prompt smiles rather than crying.
“Nature has prepared babies to help you support their brain development,” Gallagher said. “People say children don’t come with instructions, but actually they sort of do. Knowing you are safe is the single most important human need.”
A healthy child not only is physically healthy, but emotionally fit, has warm and productive relationships, communicates effectively, solves problems, and explores with curiosity, attentiveness and persistence. In today’s society, more supports are needed to build a healthy child, Gallagher said. “Families are the core,” she said, “and we can never forget that.”
In Guilford County, 230 families shared their experiences and concerns with Ready for School, Ready for Life since last June. Some of their photographs, comments and stories were shared Thursday through exhibits that helped parents learn more about what is working and what gets in the way of preparing children for kindergarten.
“There’s a role for everyone in our community to make sure children are on the pathway, that we’re building supportive and supported families, and to build a more responsive and innovative early childhood system,” said Mary Herbenick, executive director of Ready for School, Ready for Life.
“We want every child to enter kindergarten ready to succeed,” Herbenick said. “There is a strong commitment in this community to make this happen. This commitment has been decades in the making, and we have a lot of good programs to build upon.”
Having each child enter kindergarten ready to succeed was the number one concern of 350 families who were asked, she added.