Aug 14, 2014Burlington Free Press
Charlie Biss

Healthy development of our children is essential to Vermont's economic security and quality of life — because our children are our future. That's why I support Let's Grow Kids, the public education campaign that launched in April. Let's Grow Kids aims to educate Vermonters about giving all of our children the support and preparation they need to develop a strong foundation for success in life.

New research shows that 40-50 percent of Vermont's children are not prepared for kindergarten. Children who are not prepared for school are less likely to graduate from college, and more likely to need special education, depend on social services, have more health concerns, and commit crimes. We must do a better job of getting our kids ready to succeed in school and beyond.

Good mental health is a critical place to start. Mental health is defined as how we think, feel and act when facing life situations. It is how we look at ourselves, our lives, and the people we know and care about. It determines how we identify, regulate and express emotions, how we relate to others, and how we handle stress. In our shared task to raise children. Parents, family, community and professionals must commit to fostering the development of the child's sense of connectedness, self-worth, joyfulness, intellectual growth, coping with challenging situations and the many brain functions that define mental health.

Brain development is marked by periods of rapid growth — especially during the first few years. Eighty percent of the child's brain develops between birth and age 3, laying the foundation for future social-emotional development. Good social-emotional development in early childhood is tightly bound to overall healthy development of the child, healthy relationships within the family, and strong support for both the child and family in the community.

Protective and nurturing relationship with caregivers during the first years are essential to healthy brain development in infant and toddlers. The interaction between the parent and infant is central to the infant's physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development as well as social regulation skills. Social interaction is the most important kind of stimulation a young child will receive. Sensitive caregivers can help babies build trust and confidence. Reading, singing, talking, and playing with other young children provides important input to the developing brain, which is making 700 new connections every second!

Early efforts to promote the healthy social and emotional development of children can have tremendous benefits for children in the long run. These benefits include school readiness, academic success, choosing health behaviors, positive peer/family relationships, and positive involvement in their community.

Please visit www.letsgrowkids.org to find more information about how we can help our youngest children from the time they're born — and why it's so important to Vermont's future.

Charlie Biss, of Middlebury, is director of the Child, Adolescent and Family Unit with the Vermont Department of Mental Health.

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