Many students across metro Atlanta are already back in their school routines. This year, literacy is a major focus at schools as several districts push to improve reading test scores across the state and combat pandemic learning loss.

One program is taking on childhood literacy before students step into the classroom.

The Small TALK program, created by the WellStar Foundation, is focused on giving families tools to enhance their child’s literacy proficiency from pre-birth to age 8. Medical professionals participating in the program teach parents how to help their children develop and improve literacy skills early.

Dr. Jose Rodriguez is among those medical professionals working with families in the community. He says he’s passionate about the program and he sees a major need for it.

“We’ve noticed a lack of improvement in reading skills, and cognitive development post-pandemic. We have not gone up. We’ve gone down since then and children have been back in school,” Rodriguez said.

He works with parents like Daniel Laufenberg, a proud dad of a 4-year-old and 2-year-old. Laufenberg said that, as a dad, he has learned a lot from just one visit.

“Even at our three-day appointment, Dr. Rodriguez said to make sure you are reading books to the newborn. I’m like ‘reading books?’ I didn’t think to read them a book at three days old,” said Laufenberg. “Every appointment I go to, I learn something new.”

Research shows more than 80% of brain growth occurs within the first 3 years of life. Rodriguez said that these years are critical in children’s brain development. He says for years, healthcare professionals have been advocating for relational health, which surrounds anything that promotes safe, stable, and nurturing environments.

“This is so important. This is a two-generational approach to creating resiliency, literacy, and safe nurturing relationships which helps the brain grow healthy,” said Rodriguez.

Laufenberg said his children have benefitted from the program.

“My kids have been, in terms of their literacy – no complaints. They talked super early. At 12 or 13 months they were talking, putting together phrases that I couldn’t even believe,” said Laufenberg.

The Small TALK program is part of the Liberty and Justice for All initiative, funded by The United Way of Greater Atlanta with support from the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation.

Currently, the Small TALK program is conducted during patient visits at Wellstar Kennestone Regional Medical Center. The healthcare system said it is looking to expand to other campuses.


Original Story by Faith Jessie, WXIA 11 Alive
Published: 9:35 PM EDT September 13, 2023