Compass: Parents can wire babies' brains for success

Reading and hearing the comments of distraught Alaskans from Monday night's meeting of the Anchorage School Board over budget cuts is troublesome. The stories from counselors and specialists who work with families brings home to me how much work we face if our children are to have the chance for happy, healthy, productive lives.

Like many in this community, I'm concerned about the school district budget cuts. I am an engineer and mother to three small children. By the time my oldest child enters school in a few years, I wonder how much more will have been cut and what opportunities may be lost. We hear a lot of rhetoric about the importance of helping our children. But heaven forbid we should dig deeper to ensure they have the help they need to succeed in school and in life.

Counselors and specialists serve critical roles in a complex world. They can and do make the difference in whether a struggling student stays in school or drops out. But I believe that the most effective help for our children begins long before they enter kindergarten.

I attended a lecture earlier this month by visiting neuroscientist and author Dr. Lise Eliot, and it brought home the power of a child's early experiences in setting her up to succeed in school and life. Obstacles and challenges are part of the human condition, yet no amount of money can smooth all the bumps from life's path. What we can do is huge: provide the nurturing early in life that children need to be resilient in the face of those bumps.

In her lecture at the Loussac Library Feb. 1, Dr. Eliot talked about the "plasticity" of the baby brain. Plasticity refers to the impacts that environment and experience have on the growth and development of the baby brain.

The right kind of early experiences - lots of quality interaction with parents and other adults - literally build and expand the wiring within a baby's brain. Babies who don't get much in the way of early learning experiences don't develop as many brain circuits.

Ironically, so much of the important and influential work we as parents can do is free and easy. Talk, sing, play, ask questions - yes, ask questions even before your baby can talk. It all counts and helps build up the baby brain. As Dr. Eliot said, early interactions are crucial to develop the whole brain. She said every experience changes the structure of the brain. What infants need is not stimulation per se, but interaction. The best learning happens in the context of relationships.

What does this have to do with school counselors? Everything. We will always need school counselors. But perhaps more children will be better prepared to ride out life's bumps and succeed in school (and life) if their parents - and other adults in their lives - learn how much they can do to build their babies' brains.

Holly Willman is on the Best Beginnings board of directors.