Study Will Target Rural Child Development

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"Little Leaps," a new SIU School of Medicine program that will launch this summer at the Hillsboro Community Child Development Center (HCCDC) through a partnership with Hillsboro Area Hospital, may eventually have an impact on brain development in preschool children throughout the country.

"Through this partnership, we have the potential to change the landscape of Hillsboro by improving early childhood development," Dr. Sameer Vohra told members of the Hillsboro Area Hospital board and HCCDC staff at a meeting in April at the hospital.  "We believe our work in Hillsboro can be a model for the rest of the state and country."

According to Dr. Vohra, a pediatrician who is executive director of the Office of Population Science and Policy at SIU School of Medicine, the program will provide "brain bags," packages of fairly common age-appropriate items that are designed to enhance the quality of interaction between teachers and children age two months to five years.  The packages are also designed to be taken home by parents for ongoing interaction and brain development.

As the study progresses, a team from SIU School of Medicine will acquire and analyze data, document implementation and measure and document developmental outcomes in children.

According to Hillsboro Area Hospital CEO Rex Brown, the study has met the approval of hospital medical staff, HCCDC staff and director Sheri Reynolds, and the SIU School of Medicine for two years of funding.  Locally, that will amount to $53,000: the hospital system is providing $20,000 and the hospital itself is providing $28,000; the remaining $5,000 will come from the Hillsboro Area Health foundation.

"What we want is to have a model developed here in Hillsboro that works and we can take to other communities in rural America," Brown said.

According to Dr. Vohra, because a higher percentage of families in rural America have trouble meeting food and housing needs due to financial difficulties, children often fall behind in brain development leading to "toxic stress" in early childhood and higher frequencies of mental, behavioral and developmental issues.

"Those problems are real in Chicago too," Dr. Vohra said, "but they get a lot more attention.  There are people thinking about those problems in urban areas."

The problem? Seventy percent of brain function is formed in the first three years of life, the pediatrician said describing how that occurs using short videos from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.  Early in life, brain circuits are formed through simple "serve and return" interactions with infants and toddlers.

Those brain circuits, however, are not formed in adverse childhood experiences, leading to learning delays and lifelong health issues.

"Low income students often fall behind two-and-a-half to three grade levels by the fifth grade," Dr. Vohra said.

Researchers at SIU School of Medicine believe they have found a solution, and the HCCDC study will evaluate the effectiveness of that solution.  The "brain bags" of common age-appropriate items will hopefully stimulate the type of "serve and return" interaction between children and teachers, as well as children and parents, that will foster brain circuit development.

Essential to the success of the program is parent engagement and interaction.  HCCDC director Sheri Reynolds will be planning a session with parents as the program kicks off.  SIU School of Medicine will keep track of data provided by frequent assessments to track milestones in the program's effectiveness.  The research schedule will continue through July 2018 with implementation and evaluation of the bags using the case study design.  SIU School of Medicine will take information from the first year of the study and produce a summary report, and then develop strategies and the next steps.

"Little Leaps was chosen as the name of the partnership because it embodies the goals of the program," Reynolds said.  "Our project aims to leap forward the developmental outcomes of our little ones, giving our children the necessary skills they need to succeed in school and life.  Their leaps, little by little, will build the foundation necessary for Hillsboro's children to build the brightest of futures."

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