Mar 262013


The Daily Reflector

Dr. Tom Irons smiles gives the keynote speech during the State of the Young Child breakfast at the Hilton on Friday morning. (Rhett Butler/The Daily Reflector)

By Michael Abramowitz

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A child’s experiences during the first 2,000 days of life, have a lasting effect — for better or worse — on later health, learning and success, child development experts told a group of community leaders on Friday.

The challenges to engaging children during the early years of life and the consequences, negative and positive, of adult involvement in preparing children for life were discussed during a breakfast hosted by the United Way of Pitt County and the Martin-Pitt Partnership for Children.

Keynote speaker Dr. Tom Irons, a practicing pediatrician and professor at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, has spent his career helping poor and disenfranchised people in eastern North Carolina. He connected what he learned from his experiences caring for children here to his work with children in Africa ravaged by poverty and disease.

“It is important to provide children with opportunities and a safe, nurturing and stimulating environment at this critical time in their lives,” Irons said, “… so they are ready to be taught and have the best possible chance for a successful career in school and, ultimately, as a contributor to society.”

Irons said that children’s home and community environments are important contributors or detriments to successful development. Factors include nurturing, safety and security, adequate diet and rest, and positive stimulating communication between parents and other caregivers and children.

“To put it another way, the child that develops in a healthy environment has a brain that is hard-wired for success,” Irons said.

Conversely, children also can become “hard-wired” for failure, he said, when there is an absence of these needs and a poor physical environment, or when the parents just don’t know what to do or do not have the wherewithal to do it.

The bi-county partnership shared data about the challenges of poverty and developmental health faced by area children, particularly those who receive or qualify for public assistance. Sources included the N.C. Center for Health Statistics and both counties’ public health departments.

Thirty percent of children in both counties are born into families whose income is below the poverty level. Free and reduced-cost lunch is provided to about 60 percent of Pitt County students and to about 68 percent of Martin’s students.

There are 12,341 Pitt County infants and children enrolled in Medicaid and another 2,020 enrolled in Martin County. There are 1,127 more in Pitt County on a waiting list to receive a subsidy. In both counties, 8.5 percent of children younger than 18 have no health insurance.

In Pitt County, there is a 39 percent teen pregnancy rate. In Martin County , the rate is 35 percent, compared to a statewide rate of 30 percent.

I know the leaders of our community do not wish things to be the way they are for these families, and they don’t have to be (this way),” Irons said.

He told those who work toward improving conditions to be proud of their efforts and encouraged people to do more.

Irons’ message was followed by a panel discussion that included Abigail Jewkes, associate professor of child development and family relations at East Carolina University; Beverly Emory, Pitt County Schools superintendent; and Rep. Brian Brown, R-Pitt County. Jewkes said child development is not a race and class issue, but one that is important for all youth.

“It is important to understand that all parents want the best for their children,” she said. “They don’t always know how, and we must understand what their needs are.”

Emory said the most important initiative is for every child to leave second grade reading at or above second-grade level.

“If you visit a first- or second-grade class anywhere, you will see what people deal with every day to try and overcome those hard-wire issues Dr. Irons spoke about,” Emory said. “We see a three- or four-year gap in children who enter kindergarten, and we tell teachers to grow a child one year for every year they’re in school. But if you start four years behind and do that, when the child is in ninth grade, they’re still four years behind (despite remedial efforts). If we don’t teach them to read by third grade, the rest doesn’t really matter.”

Emory said the greatest obstacle to child development is poverty. She acknowledged the challenges state lawmakers face to find funding resources to combat early development issues, but also alluded to the Legislature’s rejection of federally funded Medicaid expansion that sends North Carolina income tax dollars to other states that chose to participate.

“If we take the resources we use right now to keep people out of prison and help them graduate and get a GED, and eat and find a job to feed their families, it would take all that money to frontload and serve all these thousands of children from birth to 5 years old,” Emory said. “We can’t take money away from this group right now and let them fail in order to program. We have a very short window of time in which we can close the gap.”

Pitt County Health Director Dr. John Morrow preceded the discussions with presentations of the inaugural First 2,000 Days Award for actions that improve children’s and families’ developmental and life experiences through support programs and the creation of a nurturing environment.

Recipients included Vidant Medical Center, representing an area business, and Mack Legget of Martin County, representing individual achievement.


Contact Michael Abramowitz at or 252-329-9571.

via The Daily Reflector.


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