Arkansas doctor prescribes books to encourage kids to read

Reach Out and Read — with Dr. Chad Rodgers and board member Martha Hiett — recently celebrated its 10th anniversary in Arkansas.

There are pediatricians in Arkansas who are giving out more than just immunizations and checkups to children 5 and under. Some of them are also passing out books to their tiny patients.

Here's one now. His name is Dr. Chad Rodgers and he is the co-founder, along with Bentonville-based pediatrician Dr. James Scherer, of the Arkansas coalition of Reach Out and Read, a national organization founded nearly 30 years ago to help pediatricians get books into the hands of children and their families.

"During the first five years of life is when most kids come to the doctor the most, and that's where Reach Out and Read is a great complement to well-child visits," Rodgers says at his Little Rock Pediatric Clinic office.

A book might seem like an odd gift from a pediatrician, but there is a lot of power between those covers.

In Arkansas, according to Reach Out and Read, 50 percent of 5-year-olds are not ready for kindergarten. Regularly sharing a book with a child can go a long way to remedy that.

Studies by the Boston-based Reach Out and Read say that families served by the program are 2 1/2 times more likely to read to their children, and children's language development is improved by 3-6 months. Toddlers of families participating in the program also had higher receptive and expressive vocabulary scores.

"They have many years of research that shows that kids who participate in the Reach Out and Read program have better language skills when they start kindergarten," says avid reader Rodgers, who is also chief medical officer for the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care. "It's an evidence-based model that works, that really improves kids' development."

Martha Hiett is a book lover and board member of the Arkansas branch of Reach Out and Read, which has about 35 participating clinics.

"There are all kinds of positives with this program, including the interaction between the pediatrician and the family," she says. "We're sometimes more apt to follow doctor's orders, and that interactivity encourages and promotes it even more."

Hiett checks in with pediatric care providers around the state who offer Reach Out and Read.

"We provide money to them to help buy the books, and so many have said that they could use more money for books because everybody that comes in loves it," she says. "It was so uplifting!"

Books are bought by Reach Out and Read from publishers such as Scholastic and are distributed by pediatricians, pediatric nurse practitioners and family practice physicians. A donation of $40 would pay for books for one child throughout the whole five-year program, according to the group.

Reach Out and Read was started by pediatricians Barry Zuckerman and Robert Needlman along with early childhood educators Jean Nigro, Kathleeen MacLean and Kathleen Fitzgerald-Rice at Boston City Hospital, which is now Boston Medical Center.

They gave books to families and encouraged them to read aloud as a way to foster interactions between parents and children to stimulate early brain development.

By 2001, there were Reach Out and Read programs in all 50 states and they now serve 4.7 million young children a year.

Rodgers was at Arkansas Children's Hospital when he first heard about Reach Out and Read.

"I was a resident representative to the National Academy of Pediatrics," he says. "When we would go to meetings we would meet with other districts and they were all talking about this Reach Out and Read program."

There was a loose affiliation with the national organization until the Arkansas coalition of Reach Out and Read formally got off the ground in 2008.

"We're proud to have been here for 10 years now and we're building," says Hiett, who is retired from a career in public health and who worked for the Arkansas Department of Human Services Division of Childcare and Early Childhood Education.

Getting to children early is a goal of the program.

"We know that kids are born with all this potential to make these neuronal connections," Rodgers says. "But if things like reading and repetition and hearing words -- things that reinforce those connections in the brain -- if they're not reinforced by the time they're age 2 they can actually lose those great neuronal connections that help with memory."

Turning pages and handling books also help children develop fine-motor skills. Babies are given board books to hold and even chew on, and as children get older the choices range from picture books to paperbacks with stories. Language books that teach English and Spanish are also popular, Rodgers says.

And a doctor walking into an examination room bearing the gift of an age-appropriate, colorful new book is often a friendly sight for little patients who may be nervous or shy.

"Sometimes there's an opportunity to walk into the room with the book and build some trust, but also gain some interest," Rodgers says. "If you have a few minutes you might even look at the book with the child and talk about it. My partners love it because it's become such a part of the exam."

It's also a chance to debrief parents on the importance of what Reach Out and Read calls book-sharing with their children, Rodgers says.

"Just short messages like, 'Have you started sharing books with your baby? Are you pointing to pictures and talking about things? It's really important to start sharing books with your child now to help them get ready for kindergarten.' Families appreciate that you've given them this book and that you're genuinely invested in their child's well-being and development."

National research by the group has shown that the book becomes one of the things parents recall most about a visit.

"We talk about seat belts and feeding and safety, but they tend to report that they remember the doctor talking to them about the importance of book sharing," Rodgers says.

The local coalition just celebrated its first decade, and Hiett says the group is still growing.

"The board has been meeting and talking about the future. We need to get the word out. Once people know about Reach Out and Read and what it is, it's like a light bulb coming on."

And even when children have started kindergarten and aged out of the program, books are still on their minds.

"Kids come back and they're like, 'Where's my book,'" Rodgers says with a laugh.

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Little Rock pediatrician Chad Rodgers — with his grandchildren, Lucas McDaniel (left) and Adalyn McDaniel — is the co-founder of the Arkansas coalition of Reach Out and Read, which helps with children’s development by giving them books during visits.

High Profile on 12/02/2018