From birth to age six, a child’s brain develops more than at any other time in life – forming over one million new neural connections every second. The brain develops through everyday experiences and positive interactions with parents. As a young child learns language and motor skills – such as learning to walk, eat solid foods, and say new words or phrases – the child is also building relationships with parents and siblings, experiencing new emotions, and using their senses to understand the world around them. Over time, these brain connections built through everyday experiences help a child to move, speak, and think in more complex ways, developing higher-level abilities like motivation, self-regulation, problem-solving, and communication needed to be a successful adult.
Adults in a child’s life have great influence – and responsibility – to help nurture their child’s healthy growth and brain development. Research shows that positive interactions with caregivers where parents can give attention, nurture, and appropriately respond to a child’s needs are critical for a child’s development. When families face hardship or other significant challenges, such as family violence or housing instability, and are unable to focus on activities such as reading books together, toxic stress may affect children’s brain development. The persistent absence of nurturing interactions from caregivers increases the likelihood that young children are at risk of poor health and development outcomes. However, when a parent can effectively nurture their child and offer more positive interactions in the early years, children are better set up for future health and success. State leaders have a critical role in supporting policies that help families overcome experiences of economic hardship, a lack of education, or other stressors that threaten stable, responsive relationships between children and their families.
Home visiting programs, which serve families on a voluntary basis, bring trained nurses, social workers, and child development specialists to the home, providing support and education to pregnant moms and new families with children under age six. State- and federally-funded evidence-based home visiting programs are proven to promote maternal and child health, reduce child abuse and neglect, reduce infant deaths, promote positive parent-child interactions, and improve child development including language skills. Home visiting programs also effectively connect parents and their young children to resources that foster positive child development and ensure families’ needs are met.
Unfortunately, despite the value of these programs, only 2.2 percent of Texas children under age three who are eligible for home visiting are served in evidence-based home visiting programs, which is more than four times worse than the national average (7.3 percent).
When children endure maltreatment such as abuse or neglect, the trauma, disruption, and distress can harm their well-being and ability to thrive in the short-term and long-term, both in school and for the rest of their lives. The more adversities a child faces, the greater the likelihood they will struggle now and into adulthood. Unfortunately, a significant number of Texas children, 15 out of every 1,000 children under age six, face maltreatment — a higher rate than the national average (12.7 per 1,000 children).
Maltreatment can be driven by many factors, including untreated substance use by a caregiver, family domestic violence, and unaddressed mental health challenges. A robust network of support programs and greater access to home visiting programs, coupled with a well-trained and appropriately resourced Child Protective Services workforce, can prevent children from facing neglect and other unsafe situations at home, the trauma of removal from their families, and the challenges children experience in the foster care system.
The frequency of routine reading is a critical indicator of a healthy learning environment with stimulating, positive interactions between parents and children. Reading daily to young children, starting in infancy, helps them develop the building blocks for language, literacy, memory, and vocabulary to make sense of and participate in the world around them.
Unfortunately, according to data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, Texas ranks nearly last in the percentage of children under age six whose families read to them daily, with significant disparities. The survey showed that 74 percent of Texas children under age six are not read to daily. The percentages are even higher for Black and Hispanic children in our state.
There are many reasons why parents may not read to their children daily, including long work hours, economic hardship, or limited educational opportunities themselves. However, interventions like parent coaching can help equip parents with the knowledge and skills they need to read to their children daily and build positive adult-child interactions.
Policymakers can help children receive positive adult-child interactions in the first five years of life. Strategies should include investing in evidence-based home visiting programs so they are available for all eligible children statewide, increasing access to mental health care for both parents and children as an effective way to reduce child maltreatment, and promoting initiatives proven to encourage early reading and positive adult-child interactions. Learn more about the Dashboard’s policy recommendations to enhance adult-child interactions here.