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Look at the education of kids, even kids at preschool age, and you see an achievement gap. Kids who differ by race or by economic status also differ in what they learn. Yet, it seems possible to close that learning gap by following five basic principles. And that number, five, is the starting point for our latest installment of take a number. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports from Boston.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Here in this basement room in a church in Dorchester, a group of teen moms are focusing on No. 3 on that list. Count, group and compare with your child. It's basically math for babies.
TARA REGISTER: You're probably thinking, math? With these little guys? Like, they're not even writing. They don't even know how to talk. I know. I know.
NADWORNY: Tara Register is the group leader and insists babies love numbers and counting. She explains you can just use sentences that compare things - that's math vocabulary.
REGISTER: Like, saying, oh, look grandpa's tall. But grandma's short.
NADWORNY: The new parents nod their heads and imagine how they'll do it. A mom named Brianna says she'll try and point things out when she gets home.
BRIANNA: I have two lotion bottles, so you have three toys in your crib. And stuff like that.
NADWORNY: Because these moms are teenagers, we're not using their last names to protect their privacy. Another teen named Celeste offers her suggestion.
CELESTE: On his play thing, it has one, two, three.
NADWORNY: She'll count those out, maybe even hold up her fingers while she's doing it. Register picks up Briana's baby LJ. She bounces him as she motions to his head and the developing brain inside.
REGISTER: You can't imagine how much of a sponge this is right here. We can have some engineers and some math geniuses right here in this room, right?
NADWORNY: So how did this lesson from a Harvard economist get into this church in Dorchester? Ron Ferguson came up with the idea. He's one of the leading experts who studies the achievement gap. And he's found there are differences in learning when you compare kids by race and socioeconomic status by age 2.
RON FERGUSON: Kids aren't even halfway to kindergarten. And they're already way behind their peers.
NADWORNY: This comes despite the fact there's actually a whole bunch of research on what caregivers can do to encourage brain development.
FERGUSON: The things that we need to do with infants and toddlers are not things that cost a lot of money. It's really about interacting with the child, paying attention to them, being responsive to them.
NADWORNY: So Ferguson set out to translate the research into five simple and free things adults could do with their little ones.
FERGUSON: The first of the basics is to maximize love, manage stress.
NADWORNY: That means moms and dads have to take care of themselves, too, because babies pick up on that. No. 2, talk, sing and point with your child.
FERGUSON: When you point at something, that helps the baby to start to associate words with objects.
NADWORNY: Some babies will point before they can even talk. No. 3, that's the one about numeracy that Tara Register was focused on in the church in Dorchester.
REGISTER: Count, group and compare.
FERGUSON: So fourth of the basics is to explore through movement and play. And the idea is to have parents be aware that their children are actually learning when they play.
NADWORNY: And No. 5 is to read and discuss stories. Ferguson puts a big emphasis on discussing. That's a piece lots of parents miss when they're just reading aloud.
FERGUSON: I mean, I've got a Ph.D. My wife has a master's degree. But I know that there are some things that are in our Boston Basics that we did not do.
NADWORNY: So how is Ferguson getting these five principles into the hands and ultimately the brains of Boston families?
FERGUSON: A lot of people go to church. High percentages of people have jobs. They get their haircut at the barbershop. They live in a housing development. They visit the library once in a while. They have kids in the schools.
NADWORNY: That's the heart of his idea. The basics have to go where the parents are - barbershops and home visiting programs, hospitals, churches and community groups, like the one Tara Register runs in Dorchester.
When she learned about Ferguson's plan...
REGISTER: I was just like, I think this would be the perfect place, right? We got these young moms who are learning how to parent and trying to figure this out.
NADWORNY: She wishes she had known about this stuff when she first got pregnant years ago.
REGISTER: I was a teenage mom. I had my daughter when I was 15, so I know the struggle, right? This is real to me. I understand it.
NADWORNY: She said she finds her teenage parents are surprised to discover that so much learning happens so early on.
REGISTER: Some of the stuff they're doing and probably didn't even know there was, like, a name to it or there was a development behind it, you know?
NADWORNY: Back in class, Register has one final thought for the group, which she repeats several times before they finish. It's essentially the thesis behind all five of the Boston Basics.
REGISTER: Our babies are incredible. They're complex. They're incredible. They're smart. They can take it all in. So don't underestimate them.
NADWORNY: Ron Ferguson at Harvard - he's hoping this message can get to every caretaker and their baby first across Boston and then across the country.
Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Boston.
(SOUNDBITE OF ONRA'S "MS. HO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.