Sharing the message about early brain development: Georgia's Better Brains for Babies collaboration
October 2005, Vol. 10, No. 2
ISSN 1540 5273
Diane W. Bales, University of Georgia
Early brain development is of major interest to parents and professionals who work with young children. Georgia's Better Brains for Babies initiative was developed to share information about early brain development with a variety of audiences. The initiative is a collaboration of public and private organizations across the state. Extension is playing a significant role in providing research-based content information. Better Brains for Babies educates the public about brain development through a train-the-trainer program and an in-depth web site. Although collaboration can be challenging, the collaborative nature of this effort has enabled Georgia Extension to expand its educational outreach and form partnerships with other organizations.
Keywords, brain development, early childhood, infants, toddlers, collaboration
Since the late 1990s, the popular media have devoted extensive coverage to the topic of early brain development. Print articles and television news spots highlight sensational findings, and stores are full of CDs and DVDs that promise to enhance infants' brains. Some of the media reports are relatively accurate; others have little or no research to support them. Sharing clear information about early brain development based on solid scientific evidence, and the implications of this information for the care and nurturing of young children, has been the focus of Georgia's Better Brains for Babies initiative. The Better Brains for Babies collaboration is enhancing public awareness of critical issues related to young children's brain development.
Research tells us that brain development is an extended process, beginning shortly after conception and continuing well into adolescence. The brain develops from the simplest areas to the most complex ones. A key process in brain development is the formation of networks of connections, or synapses, between neurons. These synaptic connections control everything that happens to us, from basic processes such as breathing to complex decision-making and judgment abilities. The synaptic networks are shaped by experience. Based on specific experiences, the brain strengthens connections used regularly and eliminates unnecessary connections (Black et al. 1998; Chugani 1998; Fox et al. 1999; National Research Council 2000). The fact that early experiences shape brain development provides powerful motivation for educating the public about the importance of brain development in the early years. (The book From Neurons to Neighborhoods, by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, provides a careful and accessible summary of scientific research on brain development.)
Better Brains for Babies is a collaborative partnership of Georgia Cooperative Extension and other public and private partners to educate people who influence the lives of infants and toddlers. Since 1998, Better Brains for Babies has been preparing professionals in Georgia to share research-based brain development information with parents, caregivers, and policy makers. The collaboration has grown and changed since its inception, but the intent remains the same: to improve the potential of young children by promoting the use of early brain development research to affect children's everyday life experiences.
The beginning of Better Brains for Babies
In Georgia, interest in early brain development was sparked by the 1998 release of the compact disc (CD) "Build Your Baby's Brain" and by media reports. The CD, the idea of then-governor Zell Miller, was distributed to parents of all infants born in Georgia hospitals. Its intention was to enhance infant brain development simply by exposing the infant to classical music (a controversial idea not clearly supported by research). Although the governor's office did not keep accurate statistics on the CD's distribution, informal reports suggest that thousands of families did receive and play these CDs for their infants.
The public health division of Georgia's Department of Human Resources funded two grants to educate the public about brain development research. The Better Brains for Babies initiative began with this grant funding; A group of collaborators from many early childhood organizations came together to form the initiative.
The collaboration team was designed to bring together leaders and key stakeholders who share the goal of educating the public about early childhood issues. A small steering committee approached potential partners who represent a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives on early childhood. Collaboration partners have included representatives of the health care field (e.g., the Department of Human Resources Division of Public Health, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, and the Georgia State University School of Nursing), the child-care field (e.g., the Georgia Child Care Council, Child Care Licensing, and the Office of School Readiness), and others interested in young children's well-being (e.g., the Georgia Children's Trust Fund Commission and the March of Dimes). From the beginning, collaboration meetings have included opportunities for organizations to share information about upcoming events and initiatives, so that all partners were broadly informed about early childhood efforts statewide.
The initiative began with a series of train-the-trainer workshops. These full-day workshops exposed potential trainers to brain development research and prepared them to share that information with a variety of audiences. Dr. Dorothy Routh from the Florida Starting Points initiative developed the original trainer notebook in the mid-1990s, and she gave the materials to Better Brains for Babies for use in Georgia in 1997. Dr. Routh led the initial train-the-trainer workshops, using her materials. Experienced trainers who had attended Dr. Routh's sessions led subsequent train-the-trainer workshops.
Better Brains for Babies had early success in educating the public about brain development. About 300 trainers, from a variety of fields, received training in the initial 18 months of the effort, including 40 bilingual (English- and Spanish-speaking) trainers. The trainers taught thousands of people across Georgia about brain development. To support the Better Brains initiative and provide further information on brain development, Georgia Extension faculty developed and released a series of nine brain development fact sheets in English and Spanish (Bales 1998; Bower 1998; Hanula 1998). The fact sheets were written for a general audience (at a 10th-grade reading level) and for a lower-literacy audience (at a 4th-grade reading level). These fact sheets were distributed by trainers and are available on-line.
The current Better Brains for Babies collaboration
Better Brains for Babies continues to educate people about the importance of early brain development today. The initiative has changed as brain development research and public perceptions of early childhood development have evolved. The result is a strong collaboration that is becoming known as a reliable source of research-based information on early brain development.
The key to the success of Better Brains for Babies is its collaborative nature. The initiative is made up of seven public and private organizations targeted to represent various aspects of early childhood development. The initiative is led by a working committee of representatives chosen by partner organizations. Projects are undertaken by teams of committee members, with the support of trainers when needed. Because partners contribute different content knowledge and different state and national contacts, the collaboration is able to reach a wider variety of audiences than any individual organization could reach alone.
The sharing of information and resources is what makes the collaborative effort most effective. Each meeting includes time for partners to share information about upcoming initiatives, and to discuss ways to increase awareness of early brain development through those initiatives. This less formal discussion encourages partners to share ideas and work together more closely. Partners also contribute substantial financial and in-kind support to the initiative. Because Better Brains for Babies is a voluntary effort, organizations donate staff time and materials to further the efforts of the initiative. Several organizations have also provided donations and grant support to fund curriculum development, web site development and maintenance, training workshops, and publicity materials.
Education continues to be the initiative's main focus. Volunteer trainers from many different professions share brain development information as part of their regular job responsibilities. Trainers reach a variety of audiences, including parents, grandparents, child-care providers, home visitors, health professionals, civic groups, and local and state policy makers. Some trainers educate groups; others work one-on-one to influence policies and caregiving practices. Quite a few trainers work with print and broadcast media. The trainers' main tool is the trainer resource manual, which includes a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation and supporting materials to teach brain development to a variety of audiences. Trainers also receive support through occasional research update conferences, an e-mail list for sharing ideas, and a lending library of books, videos, brain models, and other resources.
Because brain development research has changed substantially since 1997, the Better Brains for Babies collaboration team substantially updated the core training materials in 2002 to reflect the latest findings. The team reviewed recent research on early brain development, and created new presentation slides that explain the basics of brain development clearly and concisely to a variety of audiences. (See From Neurons to Neighborhoods.) Because most adults who attend our training are interested in knowing what they can do to influence early brain development, a substantial section of the new materials focuses on practical ideas and tips. For example, the section on language and the brain encourages adults to talk with children, ask them questions, read and sing to them, play word and sound games with them, repeat rhymes and fingerplays, and other simple activities that expose children to language. The section also describes the importance of early and regular hearing screening, as well as early intervention to help children with hearing difficulties learn language more effectively.
Better Brains for Babies also educates the public about early brain development through a multi-part web site (www.bbbgeorgia.org), which resides on the Georgia Cooperative Extension web server. The web site includes a section called "what you need to know," which highlights five different topic areas of brain development. This section contains a linked glossary that defines common brain-related terms. The web site also includes information about the initiative, public policy implications of brain research, a searchable database of trainers, and links to other brain development resources.
Evaluating Better Brains for Babies
The effectiveness of Better Brains for Babies has been evaluated primarily through outreach measures. Of the 410 trainers who attended train-the-trainer workshops, 155 trainers remain active in the training network, and 99 Georgia counties (66 percent) have at least one active trainer. Trainers voluntarily report their training outreach and collect participant feedback through end-of-session evaluations. Based on trainer reports, we estimate that Better Brains for Babies trainers have provided more than 25,000 contact hours of brain development training to more than 10,000 participants since the initiative began in late 1997. (One active trainer has taught brain development information to 928 people in 2004 alone.) Media contacts have reached an estimated 4.8 million readers and viewers. Because many trainers do not report their outreach regularly, these numbers are conservative estimates of outreach.
The initiative also tracks web site hits as a measure of outreach. The Better Brains web site has received more than 75,000 hits since January 2002, and has averaged between 2,000 and 6,000 hits per month since 2003. These numbers indicate that the public is receiving brain development information through the web site.
Efforts to evaluate the outreach and impact of Better Brains for Babies are ongoing. Current evaluations are measuring more accurately the outreach efforts of Better Brains trainers, the number of adults attending Better Brains for Babies workshops, and the impact of the brain development information on caregiving practices and policies.
Extension's role in Better Brains for Babies
From the beginning, Georgia Extension has played a primary role in providing the research-based content on early brain development. The Extension Early Childhood Specialist has taken major responsibility for tracking current research in brain development and for translating that research into formats the public can understand. The Extension "Building Baby's Brain" fact sheet series (Bales 1998; Bower 1998; Hanula 1998) is an example of a resource developed to communicate brain development information in lay terms.
Extension played a primary role in the content revision of the trainer manual. The early childhood specialist took the leadership role in reviewing and summarizing recent brain development research, writing the slide content and background information, collecting presentation ideas and resources on early childhood development, and organizing the notebook to maximize its effectiveness for trainers. This resource notebook, developed in 2002, is still in use statewide.
County Extension faculty also play an important role in educating the public about brain development. About 21 Extension faculty have attended Better Brains for Babies training. Georgia Extension agents taught 1,976 hours of early brain development information to 985 child-care providers and parents in 2002; more than 61 percent of those participants were from low-income families. Nearly 50 percent of child-care providers participating in Extension brain development classes increased brain development knowledge, and all participants intended to make changes in their caregiving practices (e.g., reading to children daily beginning in early infancy and protecting young children from stresses) as a result of learning about brain development.
Extension's involvement in Better Brains for Babies has helped increase Extension's visibility in the area of early childhood development. State agencies, not-for-profit organizations, and individual trainers have begun to recognize Extension as a good source of research-based information, and we have begun to receive speaking invitations and requests for information as a result. Extension also receives invitations to participate in other statewide and early childhood efforts because of our visibility as a lead member of the Better Brains for Babies team.
Better Brains for Babies continues to be a valuable collaborative educational effort for Extension. A new five-year strategic plan for the initiative has just been completed. Some future plans include updating and redesigning our presentation materials to include more graphics and visuals; developing and distributing more marketing and promotional materials; setting and maintaining standards for trainer competency, and supporting trainers to meet those standards; expanding evaluation efforts to include more impact evaluation; sharing brain development information with more community and state policy makers.
Lessons learned from Better Brains for Babies
Collaborative educational efforts like Better Brains for Babies are a good opportunity for Extension professionals to expand the impact they have on their communities. The following are some of the most valuable lessons that Better Brains collaborators have learned from experience:
- Brain development is a good "hook" for teaching parents. People who might not attend traditional parenting education offerings are interested in enhancing their children's brain development, and parents are more receptive to parenting information when it is related to brain development.
- Trainers need high-quality materials. Well-designed, flexible materials based on the most current research give trainers credibility, and can be customized to the needs of different audiences. As the initiative has become better known in Georgia, using the Better Brains for Babies name and logo has also increased trainers' credibility with some audiences.
- Brain research changes quickly. As new research emerges, some of the messages about early brain development change in subtle ways. For example, we now talk about the first few years of life as a crucial foundation for brain development, rather than a critical period. Keeping updated on the latest research ensures that materials will not be outdated.
- Good marketing helps build a reputation. Simple marketing materials can share basic messages about brain development while making people familiar with the initiative. Attractive marketing materials send a message that the initiative is a good source of information.
- Collaboration partners change regularly. Individuals move on to other positions, and organizational missions change. Effective collaborations weather these storms and gladly accept new people. A strong collaboration has a core of committed partners but is always looking to engage new ones.
Collaborative efforts like Better Brains for Babies can be challenging. The effort of engaging partners, building relationships, and negotiating responsibilities requires time and patience. But the Better Brains initiative has been worth the effort because it has allowed Georgia Extension to expand the educational outreach around early brain development while also establishing new partnerships with organizations that were not familiar with Extension.
Diane W. Bales, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Human Development Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service, Department of Child and Family Development
College of Family and Consumer Sciences, The University of Georgia
222 Hoke Smith Annex
Athens, GA 30602-4356
Sample references on early brain development
Bailey, D.B. Jr., J.T. Bruer, F.J. Symons, and J.W. Lichtman. 2001. Critical thinking about critical periods. Baltimore: Brookes.
Black, J. E., T.A. Jones, C.A. Nelson, and W.T. Greenough. 1998. Neuronal plasticity and the developing brain. In N. E. Alessi, J. T. Coyle, S.I. Harrison, and S. Eth (eds.), Handbook of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Vol. 6. Basic Psychiatric Science and Treatment (pp. 31-53). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Byrnes, J.P. 2001. Minds, brains, and learning: Understanding the psychological and educational relevance of neuroscientific research. New York: Guilford.
Chugani, H.T. 1998. A critical period of brain development: Studies of cerebral glucose utilization with PET. Preventive Medicine 27:184-188.
Fox, N.A., Leavitt, L.A., and Warhol, J.G. (eds.). 1999. The role of early experience in infant development. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Institute.
Gunnar, M.R., K. Tout, M. de Haan, S. Pierce, and K. Stansbury. 1997. Temperament, social competence, and adrenocortical activity in preschoolers. Developmental Psychobiology 31: 65-85.
Gunnar, M.R., and R.G. Barr. 1998. Stress, early brain development, and behavior. Infants and Young Children 11:1-14.
National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. 2000. From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development (Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah A. Phillips, eds.). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Nelson, C.A, and F.E. Bloom (1997). Child development and neuroscience. Child Development 68: 970-987.
Perry, B.D., R.A. Pollard, T.L. Blakley, W.L. Baker, and D. Vigilante. 1995. Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and "use-dependent" development of the brain: How "states" become "traits." Infant Mental Health Journal 16:271-291.
Research-based books written for popular audiences
Diamond, M., and Hopson, J. (1998). Magic trees of the mind: How to nurture your child's intelligence, creativity, and healthy emotions from birth through adolescence. New York: Plume.
Eliot, L. 1999. What's going on in there? How the brain and mind develop in the first five years of life. New York: Bantam.
Gopnik, A., A.N. Meltzoff, and P. K. Kuhl. 1999. The scientist in the crib: Minds, brains, and how children learn. New York: William Morrow.
Greenspan, S.I. 1999. Building healthy minds: The six experiences that create intelligence and emotional growth in babies and young children. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
Healy, J.M. 1994. Your child's growing mind: A practical guide to brain development and learning from birth to adolescence. New York: Doubleday.
Karr-Morse, R. and M.S. Wiley. 1997. Ghosts from the nursery: Tracing the roots of violence. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Ramey, C.T., and S.L. Ramey. 1999. Right from birth: Building your child's foundation for life. New York: Goddard Press.
Wolfe, P. 2001. Brain matters: Translating research into classroom practice. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Extension fact sheets on early brain development
Bales, D.W. 1998. Building baby's brain: The basics (Extension fact sheet FACS 01-1).
Bales, D.W. 1998. Building baby's brain: Ten myths (Extension fact sheet FACS 01-2).
Bales, D.W. 1998. Building baby's brain: What parents can do (Extension fact sheet FACS 01-4).
Bales, D.W. 1998. Building baby's brain: Learning language (Extension fact sheet FACS 01-6).
Bales, D.W. 1998. Building baby's brain: The role of music (Extension fact sheet FACS 01-7).
Bower, D. 1998. Building baby's brain: Prime times for learning (Extension fact sheet FACS 01-3).
Bower, D. 1998. Building baby's brain: What child care can do (Extension fact sheet FACS 01-5).
Hanula, G. 1998. Building baby's brain: Is breast milk best? (Extension fact sheet FACS 01-8).
Hanula, G. (1998). Building baby's brain: What to eat when you're expecting (Extension fact sheet FACS 01-9).