Last Tuesday was a blustery day at Perea Preschool in North Memphis. The wind blew a large pile of dead leaves into the main hallway.
For Principal Alicia Norman, it wasn’t just a mess that had to be cleaned up. It was an opportunity to teach 3- and 4 year olds a brain-building lesson in cause and effect.
“If the leaves were on the tree, how did the wind blow them in the door?” she asked some children who were eager to explain.
“They fell off the tree,” several children answered.
“Why did they fall off the tree?”
“Because it’s fall,” a couple of children shouted.
“What is fall?”
The lesson went on for another minute and was repeated all morning to the 120-plus children who attend one of the city’s best pre-K programs in one of the city’s more distressed neighborhoods.
Making cause-and-effect relationships is a critical-thinking skill that promotes the development of questioning — a skill that can drive the parent of any three- or four-year-old to distraction.
But it’s a driving force in a child’s cognitive development, allowing a child to wonder, examine, reason, and seek information and knowledge. In short, to think and learn and make good decisions.
According to some of our finest brains, the higher-reasoning parts of the brain that help us think before we act are still being wired and strengthened in the pre-K years.
Unfortunately, that thinking-learning-decision making process gets short-circuited in children who grow up in high-stress homes or neighborhoods.
Too many small children spend days and nights wondering if and when they’re going to be ignored or abandoned, screamed at or hit, or worse.
That cause-and-effect results in too many young people seeking the relative affection, safety and security of babies, drugs, gangs or guns — not to mention the too-many children who start school behind and stay behind.
Robin Karr-Morse, a child development expert and consultant for the Urban Child Institute in Memphis, calls it “toxic stress” — akin to the post-traumatic stress experienced by those in combat.
“Childhood trauma is the elephant in the room in Memphis,” she said. “It damages the normal development of vital emotional and social skills such as self-regulation, cooperation, empathy, problem solving.
“High-quality pre-K programs aren’t just academically enriching or emotionally nurturing. They can be lifesaving.”
Tuesday morning at Perea, while children were learning the cause-and-effect of falling leaves, some of their parents were learning the cause-and-effect of hitting a child every day.
“A lot of parents think they are doing the right thing by hitting a small child. They just don’t know about the damage hitting a small child does to that child’s esteem and psyche.
“We help parents understand that they are their child’s first teacher. A child cusses because you cuss. A child hits because you hit. A child reacts violently because that’s what you do.”
Perea parents contractually agree to attend six weeks of Parenting with Hope, a parent-training program that grew out of the gruesome 2008 Lester Street murders, for which Jesse Dotson was accused of killing four adults and two children, and beating and stabbing three other children.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Dr. Scott Morris, founding director of the Church Health Center, which also funds Perea (with the help of an anonymous $1 million annual donor). “I am completely convinced of the value of pre-K for both educational reasons as well as improved health outcomes.”
Study after study confirms the positive academic, behavioral and neurological effects of pre-K, especially for “at-risk” children.
Perea has space and funding for 128 children every year. On Nov. 21, Memphis voters have a chance to provide similar high-quality pre-K for 5,000 more.
The cost? An extra penny in sales tax every time you buy a fast-food burger. Two pennies every time you buy a large latte or a pack of cigarettes.
The cost of not doing it?
“If we don’t get these babies early, if we as a city don’t capture these precious moments in the development of our children, we’re going to lose another generation and then another,” said Norman, whose husband, Rev. Keith Norman, has been appointed to the Memphis pre-K Commission that would oversee the program, pending voter approval.
Early voting began Tuesday, a blustery, brain-building, lifesaving morning at Perea Preschool.