DHS Introduces Groundbreaking New Health Unit

DHS Introduces Groundbreaking New Health Unit
Posted on 07/09/2019

Dryden High School Introduces Groundbreaking New Health Unit

This spring, Dryden High School incorporated a new unit into the health class curriculum. Believed to be the first research-based high school health unit in the country to address child brain development, this lesson teaches students the importance of reading aloud to young children to promote early literacy and language skills.

Nicole Decker has been teaching kindergarten in the Dryden Central School District for fifteen years. During her time in the classroom, she noticed a learning gap between children when they enter kindergarten. Some students seemed to grasp concepts like learning letters, reading and writing more easily than the rest of the class. Other students had difficulty reading, decreased vocabulary and shorter attention spans. Decker wondered what might cause this learning difference and found the answers in a book titled “Thirty Million Words: Building a Child's Brain” by Dana Suskind, MD. 

“The more words you hear -- kind, loving, nurturing words are best -- the more active your brain will be and the more neural connections you’ll build. The more language a child hears, the better,” said Decker.

Talking, singing and reading to a baby from birth helps increase the child’s readiness for school and fosters the development of reading and writing skills. 200 million new neural connections are made every second in a child’s brain from ages zero to three.

“I was talking about the book to everyone I could find who would listen to me. I thought: What could I do with this information now that I have it? How can we get this information to people before they have kids?” said Decker.

She decided the best place to share this material where it could have the most impact would be in high school health classes, ideally taught to students before they start families of their own.

Decker wrote a summer curriculum proposal for the health unit, which she shared with Cheryl Covell, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Dryden Central Schools. After the proposal was approved, the content was revamped with the help of Brigid Hubberman, founder of the national non-profit organization Children’s Reading Connection; Mary Balfour, Speech-Language Pathologist at Dryden Elementary School; Jennifer Stone Christensen, an Ithaca native earning her PhD at Duke University and Heather Sheridan Thomas, retired Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services at TST BOCES. This team of educators used their expertise to ensure the unit's research was sound and suitable for high school students. 

The final proposal was presented to the Dryden Board of Education and approved.

Amanda McCaslin was hired as a health teacher at Dryden High School in January 2019. McCaslin previously worked as a pediatric nurse, taught middle school science and served as a health educator in the Peace Corps. In December, she earned her master’s degree in Health Education.

When Decker approached McCaslin about including this unit in Dryden’s health curriculum, McCaslin was enthusiastic and eager to collaborate.

“From my experience working in pediatrics, I knew that this lesson was on the right track. I wanted to learn more about it and incorporate it into the curriculum,” said McCaslin. 

McCaslin integrated the new lesson into the sexual health unit, connecting it to topics such as sexual activity, contraception and family planning. In the future, she hopes to incorporate lessons about starting a family into the mental health unit, which is taught in the fall. 

Through class discussions, presentations and worksheets, Decker and McCaslin shared the significant impact reading from an early age has on future academic success. The more parents talk to their child, the faster the child’s vocabulary grows, resulting in higher IQ test scores at age three and older.

Decker and McCaslin also discussed neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to grow, mold and change. Although reading to young children promotes improved language and literacy skills later in life, those who come from different backgrounds can also gain these skills by making a conscious effort to keep learning and challenging themselves.

“I wanted this lesson to be a positive experience, so I included things about the growth mindset which says that if you’re willing to put in the effort and the time, you can learn. A lot of it is about your attitude toward learning,” said Decker.

The team also emphasized the four T’s: tune in (talk with your baby about what is being looked at or touched), talk more (narrate activities with your child), take turns (let your child respond through facial expressions or cooing sounds) and turn off technology. 

“The kids really connected with the ‘turn off technology’ section of the lesson,” said McCaslin.

McCaslin asked how many students have a sibling or a child they babysit who insists on watching television or playing on a tablet at all times. She questioned how the child usually reacts when the technology is taken away from them. The class unanimously noted that the child becomes upset and throws a tantrum. 

“It’s because their brains are addicted to technology at such a young age when all their neural connections are forming. The connections are forming to think that they need the technology when they really don’t. It’s actually slowing their brain development,” said McCaslin. 

She shared that the American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends no screen time for babies under the age of two and only one hour a day maximum for children ages two through five.

Students filled out assessments before and after the lesson, answering questions about the most important things to know when caring for a baby and the necessities children need to grow. In the pre-assessment, students’ answers mainly included feeding the baby, changing diapers and showing affection. In the post-assessment, students indicated the importance of reading, playing and talking when caring for a baby. 

“The response [from students] was overwhelmingly positive. I think they were interested in the information and found it worthwhile.” said Decker.

Students noted the new health unit was “engaging” as well as “good for future adults to know.”

“I think this lesson is really powerful and I’m really excited that the district is on board and so supportive. I hope to see it grow,” said Decker.  Health Class

Dryden Teachers Amanda McCaslin and Nicole Decker pose outside the Dryden High School health classroom holding the book "Thirty Million Words: Building a Child's Brain" by Dana Suskind, MD, which inspired the newly introduced health unit.