Poverty Vaccine: Reading to Children Before Age 3

How promoting literacy in young kids will help them in the future by making them more employable and keeping them out of jail.


What if you could immunize children against future povertyGeorge C. Halvorson, CEO for the Institute of InterGroup Understanding, thinks we can.

His call to action for doing this: Give children books, read to them and engage them with conversation and play before they hit their third birthday.

“You change the life of the child if you intervene in the first three years,” explained Halvorson, who also chairs The First Five Commission for Children and Families for California and is the retired CEO of Kaiser Permanente (No. 1 on the 2016 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity).

It’s an idea he lays out in his book “Three Key Years: Talk, Read, Play, Sing, To Support & Help Every Child in America,” and one he’s been espousing throughout the country, including at DiversityInc’s Top 50 event learning sessions last month.

Here’s a video of his speech:

Halvorson is passionate about helping give children from all groups and socioeconomic levels a fair chance at succeeding in life, and he sees early intervention as the best remedy, with the medicine being as simple as exposure to books and reading.

“More than half of low income homes don’t have kids books,” he said, and that needs to change if we’re going to make a difference.

We need to look at this, he continued, as a public health issue, like clean water or immunizing children.

In his book, he writes:

We can predict with a very high level of accuracy by age three which children are going to be unable to read and we know that the children who are reading impaired by the third grade are 40 percent more likely to get pregnant in their teen years, 60 percent more likely to drop out of school, and more than 70 percent more likely to end up in jail.

Indeed, with so many people concerned about high incarcerations rates in the United States, especially among African American men, Halvorson thinks we’ve created an illiteracy to prison pipeline. He sees exposure to reading early on as a way to finally address this growing problem.

An interesting point from his book illustrates how the inability to read correlates with ending up in the criminal justice system:

We know now that 60 percent of our prisoners either read poorly or do not read at all and we also know that over 80 percent of the children in our juvenile justice system today have those same problems.

Children, he stressed, aren’t born predisposed to end up in trouble or unemployable.

“Everyone believes the intelligence you’re going to have in life was dealt to you at birth,” he said. But, he added, “it’s not a destiny thing, it’s a developmental thing.”

The key, he pointed out, is helping people understand the neuroscience behind child development.

“People don’t know the science, they don’t know the importance of educating kids,” he said. “We can’t stop kids from going to jail and being unemployable unless we fix this in the first three years.”

“We need every relevant adult in America to understand these issues, parents, business leaders, mayors, caregivers, everyone to get this,” he stressed. “Because, if you know something, then you can make relevant decisions and take advantage of the knowledge. All people who want to make a difference need to know this stuff.”

While the first three years are critical, “the first 100 days are really, really important for the emotional well being of children,” Halvorson added.

And that’s why he also sees parental leave as necessary if we want to ensure emotional development. California, he pointed out, recently expanded parental leave legislation, and as part of that, The First Five Commission has committed to rolling out a Web-based coaching toolkit for new parents who take leave. The main goal of the toolkit which will include videos and opportunities for parents to connect is to teach parents the critical role that feeding, hugging, cuddling and nurturing children in those first few weeks of life plays for their future success.

“The brain wires itself then,” Halvorson said. “The nurtured brain and the non-nurtured brain are very different. Those kids who aren’t nurtured end up more negative and aggressive. We’re teaching parents that.”

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