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Reading Time's a Missed Opportunity for Life-Skills Learning

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For a long time, we've been told, "read to children!" As important as this message is, it has frustrated me. It's not JUST reading to children that matters; it is HOW we read to children that has benefits for us and for them.

This may sound like a guilt-trip, but it's not! There are simple ways to read to children that make it more fun for us and for children and that promote their learning even better. These don't cost money or take lots of time. I certainly know from my research on work and family life that time is something we all feel starved for.

So what do I mean?

One of the enduring findings from child development research is the importance of what researchers such as Jack Shonkoff of Harvard call "serve and return". This involves a back and forth interaction between you and your child. Like a game of ball: One of you says or does something (serves) and the other responds (returns). It is important to listen and then to build on and extend what your child says or does and to keep this going for as long as your child is interested.

Here is an example. While reading the book Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes...(based on the song) to your child, you can point to your head and say: "Here's my head. Where's your head?" Then point to the child's head: "There's your head!" Wait for your child's response and respond back. That is the essence of serve and return. It doesn't matter if you don't finish the book--having the conversation is what counts.

As Catherine Snow of Harvard says:

The book creates a platform on which the conversation takes place. [The adult is there to] interpret, to name the pictures, to describe the action, to explain what's going on. This is one of the reasons why research shows that families in which children are read to regularly are families whose children are more likely to arrive at school ready to learn, with bigger vocabularies and a greater capacity to participate effectively in classrooms. [It's] because they've had this kind of focused conversation with adults.

Another important finding from child development research is the importance of promoting executive function life skills. And that sounds like a mouthful too, but it isn't. These are skills that emerge along a developmental timetable in children. However, they emerge often unnoticed, and as such are typically not consciously promoted, but when they are, children are more likely to thrive in the short- and long-term. That's why I call them life skills.

All of these life skills are based, in one way or another, in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and we use them to "manage" our attention, our emotions and our behavior in order to reach our goals. So they are executive function life skills.

As Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia says:

If you look at what predicts how well children will do later in school, more and more evidence is showing that executive functions ... actually predict success better than IQ tests.

Here is an example, using the book, Elmo Says, based on the game Simon Says. This book promotes the executive function life skill of Focus and Self Control. Focus and Self Control includes being able to remember rules. It also includes the ability to not just make a quick response, but also to pause and choose a response. Playing games and reading books that require children to remember and not go on automatic, but to exercise self control, are what promotes executive functions. You can play the game as you read the book with your child. Like the game of Simon Says, your child is not supposed to follow the directions unless the book states: "Elmo says!"

My years of research into executive function skills and the critical impact they have on young children led me to create the book Mind in the Making, a set of seven essential life skills that every child needs. And what better time to promote those skills in children than when you're sitting down reading with them?

In order to make this a reality, especially for low-income children, I've been collaborating with First Book -- a nonprofit social enterprise that provides new books and educational materials to children in need -- to translate this understanding of why HOW we read to children makes the biggest difference. We've put together collections of beloved, iconic children's books as well as new books that are sure to become classics- for multiple age ranges - that teach these valuable lessons. For programs serving low-income children, these books are available at a very low cost on the First Book Marketplace, an online store available exclusively to classrooms and programs serving children from low-income families.

We've also created a set of support tips: simple games and techniques for each book that a parent or educator can use to reinforce one of the seven essential skills. These are freely available for everyone on the Mind in the Making website, and anyone ordering any of the titles through the First Book Marketplace will receive them automatically.

By reaching more educators, clinics, and community programs with the message of teaching life skills early on, we're helping to ensure that all children find success in the classroom, the workplace and life.