A packed Early Childhood Town Hall Meeting at the University of Michigan-Flint last week helped educators and other professionals who work with children and families in Flint to better understand the serious effects of lead exposure—and to concentrate on providing real solutions to those in need.
Staff of UM-Flint's Early Childhood Development Center joined around 300 area professionals interested in supporting Flint families affected by lead in the water system. The meeting at Northbank Center was led by a panel of experts in the areas of early childhood education, child and family services, child psychology, pediatrics, school nursing, and dietetics.
"I don't want us to become involved in the blame battles going on," said Greg Piontkowski, panelist and retired school psychologist from Lapeer Community Schools, whose sentiments were echoed by the panel. "We have to concentrate on educating the population of all of these little folks."
Piontkowski recently visited UM-Flint education classes to inform aspiring teachers about the cognitive impacts of lead poisoning and about the comprehensive evaluations that can help educators identify physical, emotional, and other impairments that affect a child's learning.
During the panel discussion, Piontkowski explained that increased blood lead levels can affect language skills and general cognition, causing deficiencies in long-term memory, difficulty understanding abstract concepts such as algebra, and problems with auditory discrimination in young children who are learning to read and to retain new vocabulary.
He advised that as professionals move forward with providing solutions and resources to families of young children, they also keep data on which initiatives are working and which ones are not.
Candace Cowling, MSW and Executive Director of Family Futures in Kent County, talked about the program's Ages & Stages Questionnaire, a useful developmental screening tool used to monitor young children who are at risk for developmental problems related to medical or environmental factors.
Results are shared with parents, clinics, and child care providers, and can offer parents peace of mind as well as identify areas of concern. "We find that 18 to 24 months old is the most likely time to find developmental issues," Cowling said.
Brooke Burgess, a registered dietician with WIC at Genesee County Health Department, said that nutritional assessments, counseling, breastfeeding support, and iron and lead testing are regular services that WIC has been providing its many clients, even before Flint's water crisis. WIC has two clinics in Burton and seeks more client referrals, hoping to expand services to more people affected by lead in the Flint water system.
Panelists emphasized the importance of battling lead exposure with good nutrition, pointing out that foods rich in iron, calcium, and Vitamin C can help. Both WIC and GISD, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education, are looking to expand their nutrition programs to be able to serve more Flint residents.
Registered dietician Krista Zvoch, who oversees SNAP-Ed, suggested that people choose more nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables on their plates and also make sure young children eat regular meals. "Empty bellies absorb lead much more than full bellies," Zvoch said.
School nurse Evilia Jankowski with the GISD pointed out the benefits of having school nurses readily available to connect children and families with educators and medical providers.
"Bringing together the medical world and the educational world is not easy," she told attendees. "As early educators, you get that connection and can identify that if a child's not healthy, they're not going to learn. Well-child visits, especially now, are going to be very important to help physicians identify any delays."
Dr. Lauren O'Connell, a pediatrician who specializes in developmental and behavioral health at Hurley Children's Hospital, discussed the data behind the water crisis and the longstanding research studies that show how elevated blood lead levels affect the brain and nervous system, impacting a child's behavior, cognition, and intelligence in significant ways.
"Nutrition is a primary tool of prevention," Dr. O'Connell said. "Any solution we put in place cannot be for the next 10 years. It needs to be forever because we're helping our children's children."
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