Home » Laura Jana: 5 Connections That Will Change Children’s Lives (Transcript)

Laura Jana: 5 Connections That Will Change Children’s Lives (Transcript)

Laura Jana

Here is the full transcript of educator and health communicator Dr. Laura Jana’s TEDx Talk on 5 Connections That Will Change Children’s Lives at TEDxOmaha conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: 5 connections that will change children’s lives by Laura Jana at TEDxOmaha

Dr. Laura Jana – Educator and health communicator

What if despite the back of our intentions, despite all of our business savvy, data-driven technology informed know-how and all that the information age has put at our fingertips, we are nevertheless raising our children to succeed in a world that simply no longer exists.

So this is the question that has led me to conclude that we’ve got some fundamentally important connections to make. But first, let me explain what it was that after 20 years in pediatrics and parenting led me to connect the dots.

It was a couple years ago. I was attending a national conference and I had the chance to chat with a very highly accomplished fellow attendee who graciously offered me a signed copy of his book and casually added, “I’d love to know what you think of it.” So I took him seriously and I read his book and I shared my thoughts, that it read like an insightful parenting book and that it particularly resonated with my own approach to the complicated task of raising productive children in the 21st century.

Now I realize that would be somewhat boring if it weren’t for the part of the story that I left out — that the book’s author was Silicon Valley visionary and LinkedIn co-founder Reed Hoffman. In his book The Start-Up of You, it’s pretty safe to assume has never and will never end up in the parenting section of any bookstore. But the connection between his convictions and mine were striking, so much so that it’s left me with this idea that perhaps what we need is more of a start-up of your baby approach, because while we and many others in the worlds of business, leadership, and innovation are actively identifying the 21st century toolkit of skills that we need to succeed, those of us in the business of raising children to be ready for life adults are the ones responsible for assembling this very same toolkit. We just work further upstream, and in some cases much further, as soon as young as ages 0 to 5 .

Now for those of you unaccustomed to thinking of ready for life 18 year-olds as the most important product our economy produces, or for that matter, those responsible for raising them as part of a defined sector of the economy, the youth human capital sector in the United States, all told, has now been estimated to be as large as 10.5% of GDP. That would make it 25% larger than the financial sector.

As for conception to age five, an estimated 3% of GDP, that makes it twice the size of the auto industry. And as any critical sector in our economy, the youth human capital sector must adapt our thinking from local and linear to global and exponential, from industrial age to information age. The question, of course, is how. And the answer I believe is in five strategic connections.

First connection: connecting what we do now with what we want later. Now as simple a concept as that may seem, I worry the two have become disconnected in such a pervasive way that we all but systematically had children in one direction and then wonder years later why they didn’t end up headed in the other.

Let me give you an example. The 5 Whys is an executive training program meant to help businesses better identify the root causes of problems by using an iterative question-asking technique that involves asking why five times. As a business owner, this makes good sense.

But it always leaves me with another question. When is the last time you spent any time with a two-year-old? Because if it’s asking lots of questions that we’re going to ultimately value, then perhaps we should spend less time in early childhood training the why out of them.

Creativity serves as another good example. In a global survey of over 1,500 CEOs, creativity was identified as the most crucial factor for future success. Shifting from business to one of the most robust findings in social science, we know that intrinsic motivation is essential for creativity. And in contrast, extrinsic rewards all but kill it.

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Now explain to me will pee for eminence, because this and all of the many other — if you do this and I will reward you approaches to raising children has become so commonplace that the mere suggestion of not offering rewards for everything from peeing in the potty to going to sleep, runs the risk of being perceived as the Grinch who stole Christmas. And more importantly, it makes clear that our approach to raising children continues to be more transactional than transformational.

The other thing we know about creativity, by the way, is that by definition it requires out-of-the-box thinking. If it’s out-of-the-box thinking that we want, then perhaps we should spend less time and money marketing to children what’s inside the box and place more real value on open-ended creative play with a box.

Consult any parenting magazine, book, or blog and you’ll find that what we also do a lot of in the earliest years has a whole lot to do with the day to day — all of the crying, clothing, car seats and diapers. And while they are all very important, I fear that as a whole they cause us to lose sight of our parenting big picture, to get lost in the short-term and stuck in the parenting equivalent of living by quarterly earnings.

Every time we bolon the fact that babies don’t come with an owner’s manual, we’re allowing the how and the what of parenthood to overshadow our why. Instead what I suggest the parenting world and the youth human capital sector needs is a strategic plan, because with a thousand issues clamoring for precious hours in the day, committing time to planning for the future is admittedly not easy, but operating without a plan is harder.

And this last stop by the way comes almost word for word from another highly unlikely parenting book. It’s called Business Plans For Dummies. So that’s the case for more strategically connecting what we do with what we want.

Connection number two: Connecting the playroom to the boardroom involves clarifying what it is we actually want for our children. To raise them to be happy, healthy, successful adults is as universal a mission statement as any. But from research that Gallup has given us we can now identify more clearly five essential elements of well-being: career; financial; social; physical; and community, all important but for now let’s just focus in on career success and the 21st century boardroom skills needed to achieve it.

Now I am aware that asking you to work backwards and make any sort of direct connection between, say, workforce development and preschool play is a bit like asking you to recite the alphabet backwards. But by applying new insights, it actually becomes very easy to work our way all the way back to the foundational ABCs of 21st century success and skill building.

So let’s start with Zig Ziglar’s assertion that you don’t build businesses, you build people who build businesses, should lead us to ask what kind of people do we want to build and what sort of skills do we want them to have: communication, collaboration, curiosity, critical thinking, questioning, adaptability, the ability to fail. Those of you in business will clearly recognize these critical skills as the key competencies needed in today’s knowledge-based economy. But do you know who else is equally committed to fostering these critical skills?

If you’re thinking to yourself, middle school STEM education teachers you would be correct but not thinking back far enough, think about it. Use your words, put your listening ears on, take turns, don’t give up, learn to play nice with others and in the same sandbox. These social-emotional skills are preschool skills.

And from my somewhat unique vantage point, straddling the worlds of business in early childhood, something particularly striking is happening. With calls to action like engage don’t pamper and playing to win, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the latest literature from Harvard Business Review, Google, or Gallup and now from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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If we truly want to strategically build our human capital pipeline, then we need to focus on foundational early skill building, because we know that young children don’t just pick up these essential skills, they need to be fostered. And when it comes to how best to foster them, it’s not rocket science but it most certainly is brain science, which brings us to the purposeful connecting of neurons in the developing brain.

Babies are born with about a hundred million neurons that connected a mind expanding rate of a thousand new neural connections per second. The result is that about 85% of brain growth is thought to occur in the first five years, with the basic circuitry for vision and hearing forming right after birth, and followed later in the first year by language.

As for the building blocks for the coveted 21st century toolkit: thinking, reasoning, communicating. The basic circuitry for these higher cognitive functions is largely in place by age five. Like your LinkedIn profile, however, it is not simply a matter of he or she with the most connections wins, rather the developing brain is programmed to strengthen neural pathways that are put to good use while pruning away those that aren’t. It is the strength of these early connections that really matters.

So how do we strengthen them? Well, interestingly, much the same rules of engagement that we are now discovering apply to increasing workplace productivity also apply to raising productive children. Given the leadership role that mothers often play, it’s not surprising they’re occasionally referred to as the CEOs of their families. But given how much we now know about the importance of engagement in both the corporate and the family CEO jobs, I suggest perhaps we change the title to chief engagement officer and while we’re at it assign value a bit more equally, because in practical terms it’s really all of the everyday back and forth interactions with babies that serves as the 21st century recipe for success described by Harvard Center Developing Child as serve and return. The key ingredient is caring responsive adults.

So to help give you an image of what I’m talking about, I want you to picture a young infant. He spontaneously smiles, you respond by smiling back. And keenly attuned to your reaction, he and his developing neurons take it as positive feedback and before you know it, you now have the most eagerly anticipated developmental milestone of four-month olds: a social smile.

Now think cooing. He coos, you coo, and this seemingly simple back and forth, serve and return interaction is literally laying the social and neuronal groundwork for language and communication. If it’s executive function and social-emotional skills that we really want to cultivate, then perhaps we should focus more of our collective efforts and funding on supporting such strategic brain building activities as talking, cooing, singing, and reading books to babies.

Connection number four: Reconnecting health and learning. Former US Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders once said, “You cannot educate a child who is not healthy and you cannot keep a child healthy who is not educated”. As a practicing pediatrician, I was certainly accustomed to dealing with both important aspects of children’s lives on a daily basis. But what may come as a bit of a surprise is that this really didn’t change all that much when I left the clinical practice of pediatrics and opened a 200 student educational childcare center where I continued to address everything from allergies, asthma, autism and ADHD, right alongside classroom management and curriculum planning .

Yet the most common question I’m asked these days is do I miss being a pediatrician? And my answer is that while health and education, our systems continue to operate almost completely as separate entities, I’ve come to realize that in the life of a child this disconnect between health and learning is artificial and it poses a real threat just as our world is shifting focus from illness to wellness and prevention, the root causes of disease are being traced back to the earliest years of life.

And as we come to realize the importance of sleep and nutrition and exercise, we must also recognize that what happens in early childhood does not stay in early childhood but rather it plays a significant role in determining children’s future health and education, our life trajectories. In other words, their overall future well-being.

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Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman and colleagues recently assessed outcomes from a very well-known 1970s social experiment in which a hundred disadvantaged North Carolina children were afforded the opportunity to attend a high-quality preschool. So after decades of data collection as one might hope, the participants demonstrated improved educational outcomes. But what was unexpected and previously unassessed, however, was that they also demonstrated significant long-term health benefits in such critical areas as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and obesity.

When asked: what about their preschool attendance result in such striking improvements in health, the economists concluded that they couldn’t pinpoint one factor but rather, what we need to do is rethink our approach to early childhood all together, to cross health and education silos and actively work to integrate critical aspects of early learning with health and nutrition.

So if it’s lifelong health and learning that we want to promote, perhaps we should consider prescribing high quality preschool, especially for those children whose life trajectories are most at risk.

And connection number five: connecting to the world our children will live in. As leaders and chief engagement officers dedicated to setting our children on a path for success, we must do a better job of connecting to the world our children will live in: a globally connected world that in many ways is unrecognizable from the world that we grew up in.

I would like to think you don’t need a pediatrician to point out that technology is going to play a dominant role. But how much, how early, and how best to introduce it has yet to be determined. And as we race to figure it out, there’s a battle being waged between those who see technology’s tremendous social and educational potential and those with very violent concerns about technology’s virtual invasion of childhood. What is clear in the words of Harvard media researcher Dr. Michael Rich is that technology is now like the air our children breathe. Yes, it runs the risk of contamination but it is here to stay and our children’s success will depend on it.

As digital immigrants now responsible for raising a generation of digital natives, we owe it to our children to span this bridge, this technology generational gap and help them to learn to use technology wisely.

And speaking of gaps, our children are entering a world that is full of gaps that span from boardroom to playroom, from innovation, skills, and technology gaps to opportunity, education, and even word gaps. Making connections that will change children’s lives must include closing these gaps.

It has long been recognized that children spend the first years of life learning to read and the rest of their lives reading to learn. So it should not come as a surprise to know that the ability to read proficiently by third grade has been tied to everything from grade high school graduation and future economic success to a country’s global competitiveness and national security.

Would you like to know what is now thought to be predictive of third grade reading scores? 18-month vocabulary, which brings us right back to the foundational importance of caring responsive adults, purposeful connecting of neurons and strategic 21st century skill building, right from the very start, because 18 months really is too small to fail.

Now as hard as it may seem to believe this, I’m really — it’s not, I mean, economics and data and technology that I’m passionate about, it’s children. And what I know is that we owe it to our children to apply all of our business-savvy data-driven technology informed know-how and all the information age has put at our fingertips, not to mention the social science, neuroscience and economics, to providing all children with the strong foundation and the 21st century toolkit of skills, we know how to assemble and we know they need to succeed.

Thank you.

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