Experts stress that child’s learning starts early — with the parents

Aspen Institute researchers focus on parent-child relationship

From left, Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, Dr. Sarah Watamura and Dr. Darius Tandon addressed about 150 people during the Herald-Tribune's Hot Topic forum at Booker High School on Friday. [Herald-Tribune Staff Photo/Dan Wagner]

From left, Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, Dr. Sarah Watamura and Dr. Darius Tandon addressed about 150 people during the Herald-Tribune's Hot Topic forum at Booker High School on Friday. [Herald-Tribune Staff Photo/Dan Wagner]

SARASOTA — When it comes to kids learning, start as early as possible. Oh, and don't forget about moms and dads.

That was the message from a panel Friday featuring three experts on early childhood brain development, maternal depression and the pediatrician's role in children's literacy.

"Learning doesn't start in kindergarten; it really starts the moment a child is born," said panelist Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

About 150 people gathered at the Booker High School auditorium for a discussion hosted by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Panelists were fellows at the Aspen Institute, a foundation advocating a two-generation approach that simultaneously invests in parents and children.

Navsaria is a founding medical director of Reach Out and Read in Wisconsin. The ROAR program trains pediatricians to incorporate books into doctor visits starting when a child is 6 months old. But it's not about the book, said Navsaria; the approach is a tool that helps doctors understand the parent-child relationship.

Panelist Dr. Sarah Enos Watamura, associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver, took the two-generation approach even further with her research on the brain development of new parents.

"The brain becomes structurally and functionally reorganized" when someone becomes a parent, said Watamura, director of the Child Health and Development Lab and the co-director of the Stress Early Experience and Development Research Center.

These changes, she said, are the reason a new mother becomes uniquely attuned to her infant's cries above all others. Watamura's current research looks at the effects, positive and negative, that stress and adversity can have on parents and children.

Dr. Darius Tandon, associate professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, echoed some of Watamura's findings. Tandon's research is focused on maternal depression and the impact of parents' mental health on babies.

He said the research is showing that anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of women meet the criteria for major depression.

"We know a mom who is clinically depressed has a lot of negative outcomes," Tandon said. Those negative outcomes are not just for the mom, they can also have long-term implications for children. But early intervention can help, he added. Tandon works with the Mothers and Babies Program, a course designed to prevent the onset of symptoms in at-risk women.

Both Mothers and Babies and ROAR may soon become part of the Sarasota and Manatee landscape as Tandon and Navsaria work to bring the programs to the region.

The region is already incorporating the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, an initiative aimed at making all children proficient readers by third grade. But the scale keeps sliding back, said panel moderator and Aspen Ascend fellow John Annis, who is senior vice president of community impact at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

"We realized we need to start earlier," Annis said, adding that education issues start even before children are born. They start with parents.