Starting Strong is teaming up with area groups for Talking is Teaching, an initiative to encourage parents to read and sing to their infants and toddlers to increase school readiness and early childhood literacy. File photo

PORTLAND — In an effort to make sure children are ready for kindergarten and to be confident readers by third grade, Starting Strong is expanding its efforts to encourage parents to read and interact with their children at a young age.

Piloted in Portland in 2017, the local Talking in Teaching campaign was expanded in 2018 to include more partners in Portland and now has expanded to South Portland and Westbrook.

Katie Soucy, director of Starting Strong, says parent-child interaction through song, stories and games can help early brain development. Courtesy of Starting Strong

Starting Strong will distribute 750 Talking is Teaching kits to community partners across Portland, South Portland and Westbrook. The kits include a food-themed book, toy food pieces, a refrigerator magnet and place mat.

“We really want to help promote the importance of parent and child interaction, especially for infants and toddlers because it helps brain development. We know 90% of brain development occurs by the age of 5,” said Katie Soucy, director of Starting Strong.

The idea, according to Starting Strong, is to “help encourage families to use everyday activities as opportunities, such as mealtime, to talk, read and sing to their young child from birth to age three.”

“It’s the natural next step,” Soucy said of the program’s expansion.

It is too early to tell the impact the program has had, Soucy said, but “we have heard positive feedback from parents and our partner organizations about the kits.”

“It is a great way to start a conversation,” she said.

Partner groups include Greater Portland Health, the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, Catherine Morrill Day Nursery, Chestnut St. Family Shelter, Children’s Odyssey, Early Head Start, General Assistance of the City of Portland, In Her Presence, Maine Families, Northeast Hearing & Speech, Portland Public Health, Portland Public Library, St. Elizabeth’s, The Opportunity Alliance, Youth & Family Outreach and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program.

“Research indicates that frequent back-and-forth interactions, such as talking, singing and reading, between caregivers and babies in the earliest years form the foundation of social and emotional development and create neural connections in the brain,” said Gita Rao, a pediatrician at Greater Portland Health. “It is important to recognize the strong link between early cognitive, behavioral and brain development and health outcomes later in life.”

Liana Popkin, program manager of Maine Families in Cumberland County said  the Talking is Teaching campaign has “been of great value to staff and families.” Maine Families is a network of individuals who provide support to pregnant women and parents of infants through home visits.

The Talking is Teaching program is funded in part through the United Way of Greater Portland as part of its Thrive2027 goal of making sure students start school strong so they are reading at the appropriate grade level by third grade. The goal is to have 70% of children statewide reading proficiently by the time they are in third grade by 2027. When the project started in 2017, approximately 57% of students were reading proficiently by third grade.

According to the 2018-2019 Maine Educational Assessment data, 43.5% of third graders in Portland were below or well below English Language Arts standards, while 44% were in South Portland and 54.8% in Westbrook. These figures are a decline from the 2017-2018 figures.

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