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School readiness what the doctor ordered

It didn’t hurt that it was on a bright yellow sign I could see through the window next to my desk. Still, it’s the kind of thing that, as a reporter, catches my eye.

In big, black block letters the sign said: Covenant Children’s Academy Presents Dr. J. Duffee, Pathways School Readiness.

I wondered: Why is a physician giving a talk on school readiness?

And because, for my money, Jim Duffee could play “The Most Interesting Man in the World” in a commercial for an alcohol-free version of Dos Equis beer, I gave him a call.

Predictably, our discussion in the Rocking Horse Center, his base of operations, started with childhood reading and how in health centers like Rocking Horse it’s not unusual for 50 percent of the parents to have a sixth grade reading level and a quarter to have a third grade reading level.

That’s not true of everyone, he hastens to say. He then adds a line that’s doubles as the Rocking Horse Center’s job description: “We have to be aware of those who are most in need.”

There’s an immediate, practical reason the Rocking Horse staff tries to “assess the literacy level of the patients and family,” he said: To make sure those getting and giving the medicine know when and how much to take or give.

The longer-term reason has to do with promoting readiness for school and why school readiness is just what the doctor ordered for the sake of his patient’s long-term health.

Duffee shares a feel-good story about a boy afraid, anxious and bruised who was referred from school because of suspected abuse. The boy looks in the corner box of the exam room that always holds books and spots his favorite one.

“You should have seen his face,” Duffee said, particularly after he was told he could take the book home.

But it’s not just for moments like that that the center keeps books around and gives brand new ones to children on their well-child visits.

It’s to get books into children’s and family’s hands. That, of course, encourages learning. The “book learning” part of school readiness “begins to bring in the importance of early childhood education and early Head Start to get kids moving to learning their numbers, their skills, their colors and their social skills,” he said.

And Duffee said literacy programs like the one at Rocking Horse have been shown to advance reading readiness by about six months.

But there’s also what we might call the development of a “healthy attitude,” something based on a a child’s sense of connectedness with his or her parents or care givers. Duffee describes it as the child going out into the world carrying a sense of their parents with them.

Children sent out into the world without a strong base are at risk for what doctors call “attachment disorders” — what in the animal world we’d think of as failure to fledge.

Failing fledglings tend to fall into two categories. Some act out, a term most people are familiar with. Others do what I call “acting in,” and begin to feel the symptoms of depression. The first group tends to hurt others, the second themselves.

Here’s where things got really interesting.

As we’re learning during childhood, the experiences create electrical pathways in our brains, Duffee said. The physical blazing of those nerve pathways are a pretty fair biological description of what learning is.

As our experiences are repeated, the nerve pathways become like frequently traveled paths across a field of grass or through a forest: more established and easier to travel.

And when they’ve been traveled enough, a kind of protective sheath or covering forms around them, like insulation around a wire.

It’s because these sheaths tend to develop faster in girls than boys that girls usually are ready for school by age 5, while boys are mixed in that regard. It’s a pattern “that continues into adolescence,” he said.

But much of the initial important wiring comes before children enter school. And the consequences are great.

Duffee offered two for instances.

In the second year of life, child one is in a rich and stimulating environment — is talked to, read to, picks up literacy skills and gets the emotional support also needed to establish a strong base.

“Those nerve cells will wire together and that (pathway) will persist,” Duffee said. “Those cells won’t be pruned” or cut off.

In the second year of life, child two is not read to, lives in a drab environment, and has anxiety about his or her safety because of neglect or abuse.

Strictly speaking, it’s not that neglected children aren’t learning, it’s that they’re learning unhealthy things, things that actually impair their health and point them down unhealthy paths.

The result of this unhealthy learning is not just setting the child up for low school achievement. It’s a setting the child’s biological pathways for higher anxiety; amping up the child’s “fight or flight” reaction; creating a higher inflammatory response” among the nerves and pathways, Duffee said.

Duffee said that each pathway leads to the same destructive thing: stress.

Earlier in life it leads to smoking and early sexual activity. Later on, to more chronic problems found along the same pathways.

“From those early childhood events,” he said, “come (predispositions for) cardiovascular (heart) disease, pulmonary (lung) disease and diabetes.”

“They shorten lives and they make people sicker,” Duffee said, who then gave a direct answer to my question about the yellow sign.

“That’s why doctors need to be involved” in school readiness.

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