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1 in 5 local high school students won’t graduate this year. But we can change that.

4 facts on children’s health that may surprise you

In Minnesota, 81.9 percent of high school seniors graduated in 2015. In Wisconsin, the rates were a little better with 88.4 percent having graduated.

HealthPartners wants every child to have a bright future. And we know for that to happen, they need to have a healthy start. That’s why we have a Children’s Health Initiative. And it’s why we teamed up with the Greater Twin Cities United Way to host a Bright Futures Begin at Birth event in November 2016.

Five hundred people working in health care, business, social service, government and education attended. The event inspired them to think about how they can promote early childhood brain development.

“You can change the future for children in our community. And you can begin to do that immediately,” keynote speaker George Halvorson told the room. Halvorson is the author of the book “Three Key Years” and now chairs First 5 California. He’s also a former HealthPartners CEO.

Halvorson shared several statistics at our Bright Futures Begin at Birth event. The numbers explained why it’s important for kids to start learning at birth. And they showed how a person’s long-term health is impacted by what happens in their early years. Here are four of the most eye-popping facts:

  1. “Children who have fallen behind by age four have lower learning levels in fourth and eighth grade for both reading and mathematics.” The children who have fallen far behind by age four simply never catch up. These are the kids at high risk for dropping out of high school. They’re less emotionally secure. And they have higher rates of diseases like asthma and diabetes. In order to ensure more kids have bright futures, learning can’t begin at kindergarten. It must begin at birth.
  2. “After age four, a child’s brain prunes itself. It actually gets rid of neuron capabilities that were not exercised in the child’s first three years.” Brain exercise can happen in the form of reading, talking and singing with a child. What’s important is that a child has regular, positive and direct interaction with an adult. Ninety percent of the neuron connections in a person’s brain will be made by age five. Because of this, it’s critical that brain exercise happens in the first months and years of life. That’s when the exercise has optimal, positive biological impact. Children who have their brains exercised early have more neuron connections. They have stronger brains than children whose brains weren’t exercised in their first five years.
  3. “Reading to a child for just 30 minutes per day can cut the effects of toxic stress in half.” This is the kind of stress that disrupts the growth of a child’s brain. Toxic stress can occur if a child experiences abuse, neglect or exposure to violence. It can also affect a child whose family struggles with substance abuse, mental illness or economic hardship.
  4. “Nearly one in two American children are living in poverty or near poverty. And more than half of Medicaid homes do not have a single book.” Children born to mothers on Medicaid are only read to, on average, a total of 30 hours between birth and kindergarten. In contrast, children born to working mothers are read to a total of 1,500 hours. That’s an average of 50 times more often. The good news is this gap can be reduced. The solution is teaching low-income mothers how important reading to their young children is. And teaching them how they can help their children’s brains grow. More than 70 percent of Medicaid mothers who are given this information make positive changes in their parenting behavior and practices.

“Right now, too many children have no one interacting directly with them. And that’s because parents and caregivers don’t know the science behind brain strengthening. We need to teach all adults ways that they can help exercise the brains of the children in their lives,” Halvorson said.

HealthPartners’ Read, Talk, Sing efforts are dedicated to doing just that. We’re the largest clinic system to fully participate in Reach Out and Read. Our pediatricians and family medicine doctors partner with this national program to give families children’s books. From the time a child is six months to five years old, he or she will get a new book each time the family comes in for a well-child visit. An expecting mom who has her 32-week OB visit at one of our clinics is also given a children’s book. This is so she can read to her baby from day one. All books are paired with advice on what parents can do to be their child’s first teacher.

Wondering what you can do to help a young child’s brain grow? Here are some ideas:

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