A Physician’s Take on ‘Talking is Teaching’
Dr. Cynthia “Cindy” Bright has served Syracuse’s children for over 27 years. Her pediatric practice takes her all over the city, from Crouse and Upstate Hospitals to a private office in Liverpool. Yet upon joining the Early Childhood Alliance (ECA) in 2016, Bright realized that she had an incomplete picture of children’s services in the city. “I’ve been working in this community for a long time,” says Bright, “and there were still so many child-focused organizations that I hadn’t heard of prior to joining the ECA.”
The Early Childhood Alliance is a diverse group. Representatives from the city school district, county health department, and social services rub elbows with private practice physicians like Bright, local foundations, and for-profit daycare providers. The ECA’s sundry composition reflects one of the alliance’s aims: to mobilize Syracuse’s existing resources in ensuring early childhood success for all. And as Dr. Bright has found, simply bringing like-minded people together can yield big changes.
Bright’s personal and professional interests led her to the ECA’s Talking is Teaching: Read, Talk, and Sing campaign. Launched citywide in May 2017, the Talking is Teaching campaign stresses the centrality of early communication between parents and their young children. “Any form of communication - reading, talking, singing, narrating - helps foster language acquisition and development,” says Bright. “It also promotes bonding between parents and children.”
The Talking is Teaching campaign piloted in Oakland and Tusla a few years ago, and has been replicated in over eleven cities nationwide. Its message is primarily geared towards low income families - research demonstrates that children from upper-middle class families hear as many as 30 million more words than children from low-income families, with implications that last throughout the lifespan- yet Bright maintains that the campaign’s goal applies to families across the board. She’s seen heavy electronic use among children of all backgrounds in the last 5 - 10 years, and worries that greater numbers of parents are relying on technology to teach and occupy their children during formative life years.
Bright’s concerns are backed by emerging research that suggests videos and television do not teach language as effectively as human speech. Young children in particular - defined as children under thirty months in age - cannot learn nearly as much from multimedia sources as from real-life interactions with parents and caregivers. Videos and interactive games, it appears, cannot replace the fundamental power of human communication.
Talking is Teaching campaign visuals have sprung up across Syracuse, with messages like “Let’s Talk about the Sky” appearing on billboards, park benches, bus stops and on the radio. The campaign also relies on physicians like Bright to reiterate the message in their interactions with parents and young children. Most 18 month old children have visited their pediatrician at least six times; the Talking is Teaching campaign believes that pediatricians can uniquely monitor and support families through the essential first few months of a child’s life.
In Dr. Bright’s Pediatric Associates office, Talking is Teaching posters decorate the waiting room walls. She also gives away colorful Talking is Teaching bibs at every 4 month visit, and t-shirts at every two year visit.
Bright maintains that the ECA has impacted her practice in additional ways. Her newfound familiarity with Syracuse’s many service providers enables her to suggest appropriate resources to families; she’s recommended affordable daycare options and Childcare Solutions to her patient families. Bright is also able to weigh in when families ask about different resource options.
Bright’s perspective as a pediatric physician has, in turn, shaped some of the ECA’s work. Another one of the ECA’s priority areas includes scaling up and disseminating early childhood screening tools. Bright maintains that screening for developmental delays or disabilities should not be the exclusive purview of physicians, especially given that many families with young children do not attend all of their wellness visits. Staging screening in additional venues, such as preschools, daycare centers, and home visiting programs, makes it more likely that developmental delays will be caught early on. From there, families can be directed to appropriate resources.
A year in, Bright is highly impressed by the Early Childhood Alliance vision and strategy: “The ECA is the best organizational thing that i’ve been a part of in CNY”. She credits her fellow ECA members with building a comprehensive and thorough alliance, one that is uniquely adaptable to the concerns of its stakeholders. She also believes that the ECA’s success lies in its inclusivity: the alliance’s public and private stakeholders together generate fresh ideas that “invigorate” the traditional public sector.
Bright also appreciates the ECA’s emphasis on research and evidence-based practices. “We aren’t the first city in the country to tackle early childhood development issues,” says Bright, “and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel to address them.”
To learn more about the Early Childhood Alliance and the Talking is Teaching Campaign in Onondaga County, please visit http://ecaonondaga.org/.