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Did you know

- Babies can hear three months before they are born?

- Eighty percent of a child's brain development happens in the first three years?

- On average, the ratio of reprimands, warnings or scoldings to praise or encouragement is 12 to 1 for children in low-income families?

- A major study showed that by age 2, less-advantaged children were six months behind the highly-advantaged in language processing skills?

During a recent visit to Chattanooga, Ron Ferguson, adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and faculty director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, shared these facts as he talked about an initiative he launched in Boston. His goal is to help parents engage with their young children and reduce the skill gaps that become apparent between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds by age 3.

"Looking at the research, I realized a lot of the gaps we struggle to address once children are older are evident by the age of 2," Ferguson said. "We know we are never going to reach everybody through standard programs because capacity is limited, but imagine what could happen if everybody in the community felt a sense of ownership to do their part in helping children thrive."

The initiative focuses on five evidence-based parenting and caregiving principles that are scientifically proven ways to promote brain development in young children. It is designed so every parent, caregiver, family member, friend or citizen can use and share it.

Here are the five principles:

- Maximize Love, Manage Stress. Infants thrive when their world seems loving, safe and predictable. When you express love and respond to their needs, they learn that they can count on you. Showing love and responding helps children learn to manage their feelings and behavior. Feeling secure in their relationships gives them the confidence to explore, learn and take on life's challenges.

- Talk, Sing and Point. From birth, babies are learning language. Initially, speech is just sound to a newborn. Day by day, they learn that sounds have meaning. This process depends on how much people talk to them. Talking, singing or pointing provides clues to the meaning of your words. You are providing important information to their brains about how language works. As your child develops, talking with them and answering their questions teaches them about the world.

- Count, Group, Compare. Becoming good at math begins long before a child enters school. Even infants are wired to learn simple math ideas, including small numbers, patterns and making comparisons. You don't need to be a math teacher to prepare your child to be a problem solver. Do fun and simple activities now to build math and thinking skills.

- Explore through Movement and Play. Movement and play are good for children's bodies, their coordination, strength and overall health. They're also how children explore and learn. Each stage of development brings new opportunities for learning. An infant might explore by touching, grasping, chewing or crawling. A toddler might explore by walking or climbing. Young children are like scientists, curious and excited to explore.

- Read and Discuss Stories. Reading with young children consistently prepares them to enjoy reading and to do well in school. It is never too early to begin reading. Stories expose children to words and ideas that they would not otherwise experience. Books teach children to use their imaginations. What they learn about people, places and things can be important building blocks to future success. Reading together creates lasting memories.

Research shows this type of support for early brain growth is a key to stimulating the start in life that all infants and toddlers deserve. It is also the foundation of kindergarten readiness.

Imagine what the greater Chattanooga region would be like in 2026 if, as a community, everyone practiced these caregiving principles with the children in their sphere of influence. Plans are in the works to reach as many families as possible. The great thing is everybody can be part of this initiative to close the achievement gap and help all of our kids get off to a great start.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at