Arturo Brito MD, the Executive Director of The Nicholson Foundation, and a partner of the Right From the Start NJ public awareness program, was a featured speaker at the “Building a Culture of Health in New Jersey” conference, on November 29, 2017 at Pines Manor in Edison, New Jersey.
The Nicholson Foundation is a Newark-based non-profit organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of vulnerable populations in New Jersey. The foundation is one of the sponsors of the Right From the Start NJ public awareness campaign. Prior to his work at the The Nicholson Foundation, Dr. Brito has also served as Commissioner, Public Health Services, at the New Jersey State Department of Health.
The “Building a Culture of Health in New Jersey” conference focused on creating changes to surround kids and families in every community with opportunities to make healthy choices. Dr. Brito was one of three panelists in the breakout session entitled, “Babies, Brains and Relationships: Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Young Children in the Child Care Setting.” The session was moderated by Peri Nearon, Manager of Community Health and Wellness at the New Jersey Department of Health.
The panelists shared an overview of brain development, the impact of toxic stress on the developing brain, and examples of what child care providers can do now to address the mental health needs of the children in their care, as well as advocacy efforts currently underway to ensure the child care community receives the resources they need to provide the best possible early learning environments for babies.
During the workshop session, Dr. Brito shared statistics highlighting the importance of renewed attention to infancy and early childhood health and wellness. He drew stark contrast between outcomes for middle and upper class versus low-income children in New Jersey. One third of all children in New Jersey are living at state poverty levels, which can lead to toxic stress. Toxic stress, such as repeated exposure to neighborhood violence, malnutrition, and poverty, can change brain architecture and impact a child for life. Children exposed to toxic stress, according to Dr. Brito, have increased incidents of mental and behavioral problems, and increased health problems like heart disease, obesity, and other physical conditions.
Disparities begin very early in life, said Dr. Brito. On average, low-income children hear 30 million less words than higher income counterparts. By the time they reach kindergarten, the gap increases to 40 million. By the time they enter school, low-income children receive 1-on-1 reading time for an average of 25 hours while middle and high income students have over 1,000 hours. Children from low-income families are therefore less likely to be ready for school and less likely to finish school.
However, organizations, such as The Nicholson Foundation and Right From the Start NJ, are helping to mitigate these outcomes by raising public awareness campaigns and enacting replicable community-based programs. Educating parents, the public and our state representatives will increase attention and understanding of the crucial time of zero to three years in a child’s early life and brain development.
“Investments made early in life are lifelong,” said Dr. Brito. “It’s the best chance we have of having healthy residents in the state of New Jersey.”