Reach Out and Read Wisconsin welcomes national medical director Perri Klass, MD

Reach Out and Read national medical director Perri Klass, MD, recently visited Madison, Wisconsin to give a presentation to Reach Out and Read Wisconsin supporters and stakeholders. During this talk at the Madison Central Library, Dr. Klass emphasized the importance of using books to promote healthy brain development in young children. One of the ways reading aloud supports brain development is through the parent-child relationship. “If we want to promote healthy child development in the early years, then we have to promote that parent-child relationship,” said Dr. Klass.

Books aid in the development of the parent-child relationship because they spark back-and-forth conversations. These conversational turns are what form connections in babies’ brains. Even young babies who are not themselves talking yet, show signs of engagement when these back-and-forth interactions are happening. Examples of this include, smiling at a book or the parent, looking at the pictures, reaching out to grab the book, trying to turn pages, cooing or babbling along with the story, or even trying to put the book in their mouth.

When parents read aloud they are not only helping foster brain development but development in all kinds of areas, like math, language, vocabulary, socio-emotional, school readiness and attachment.

Dr. Perri Klass presents at Madison Public Library about the importance of books and reading aloud for healthy child development
Dr. Perri Klass shares the importance of books and reading aloud to an audience of Reach Out and Read Wisconsin supporters and stakeholders.

Screen time

Dr. Klass also shared her thoughts about screen time and e-readers. She recommended physical books for newborns and children younger than age 2. Physical books allow babies to touch, feel, learn how to turn pages and put books in their mouths – all of which are appropriate developmental milestones for young children. Screens and enhanced e-books (stories that make sounds when tapped or have animations) can be distracting for young babies. New research shows that when e-readers are used, the number of conversational turns and back-and-forth interactions between parents and children decrease. Dr. Klass recently wrote about this new research in her weekly New York Times column.

When kids are older, using electronic reading devices can help them gain access to a wide range of information. However, it is still important for parents to provide supervision and make time for reading physical books aloud together.  

Reach Out and Read Wisconsin would like to thank Dr. Perri Klass for sharing her time and expertise. Also, thank you to the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters and the Madison Public Library for co-presenting this event. To learn more about Reach Out and Read Wisconsin and how to support us our work, please visit our website.

Reading programs are really about supporting strong parent-child bonds

This article was originally published by the Cap Times on April 23, 2018.

Toddler at well-child visits at doctor's office receiving a book from her provider. Reading programs often are supporting of parents and children.
PHOTO BY COBURN DUKEHART — WISCONSIN CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

Recently, I encountered a new-to-Wisconsin mother and toddler who had left behind a not-so-good environment. As we established trust with one another, it came out that she was concerned about her child’s mild speech delay. The upheaval in their lives meant they hadn’t been able to find a primary care clinic and schedule his regular checkups yet. What could I do that might offer some immediate benefit for them?

As many know, I do a lot of work around early literacy promotion. In the last few weeks, there have been two relevant, notable studies released in this field. The first article is a meta-analysis — a combining of several studies together — showing interventions in parent-child shared reading have clear benefits, not just to the child’s language and literacy skills (we’ve known this for some time), but also psychosocially. There were better social and emotional skills and improved behavior in the children. Less expected was the benefit to parents, who had less stress, less anxiety, and greater confidence in their ability to parent.

The second study was on the Video Interaction Project (created by an NYU friend and colleague, Dr. Alan Mendelsohn). It uses video recording of a parent playing and reading with their child, followed by watching the recording together with a parenting coach who points out notable moments in the interaction. The researchers found decreases in child aggression, hyperactivity, and difficulty with attention.

These both support the value of working on early literacy skills, the foundation of the almost-30-year-old Reach Out and Read program, which makes discussion about early literacy an integral and routine part of checkups in early childhood. (Note: I am the founding medical director of Reach Out and Read Wisconsin, and serve on the national board.)

However, I’d like to point out that these studies emphasize a critical element that’s not always present in the countless literacy programs out there. While you may view Reach Out and Read as a child literacy program, it’s really secretly a parenting program: a program designed to gently and collaboratively support strong shared reading between a parent and a child.

I don’t object to programs that bring high-quality books into a child’s home, but that emphasis is often misplaced; the book itself does little if handed to a child without any other interaction. A child learns the magic and power of reading only when a loving, nurturing, responsive caregiver (usually a parent, but could be anyone) reads aloud with them. A book that sits on the shelf is useless — it only does its magic when open in the hands of a parent and child reading together.

Equally important is a parent who knows how to read effectively to a young, squirmy toddler, a technique known as dialogic reading. Simply reading at a child doesn’t work for a child with a naturally short attention span. Knowing how to read with them and interact is an important learned skill. Merely providing books accomplishes only part of the job — supporting parenting confidence is absolutely essential.

It’s not just about the books. It’s about the act of reading together. A book without a caring adult…is just a book.

The key point: Parents benefit most when we offer clear modeling, coaching and encouragement. It’s not enough to say what to do; careful intentional skill-building is crucial for success. This explains the incredible outcomes seen from high-quality home visiting programs, for example. So question projects and recognize that they are not all the same. Ask yourself if they merely provide resources or whether they are building capabilities or capacities in families

So what of the family I encountered? I took the board book we had given him and pointed out her child’s brief interactions with the book. Then I modeled talking about illustrations and I reassured her that his turning away quickly was just his normal short attention span. Finally, I complimented her on her good parenting when she described how he would bring a book to her and “ask” to be read to.

She beamed with pride. And that’s how I knew we were doing right by her.

Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD is the medical director of Reach Out and Read Wisconsin
Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD is the medical director of Reach Out and Read Wisconsin