Brenda Dean has been into the power of words to build a baby’s brain for a long time.
“When my daughters first got pregnant, I told them, ‘Start reading to them. They hear you,’” Dean says. “You picked out a name already, go ahead and start talking.”
It’s a strategy she used with her two daughters when they were young, and one she helped ensure was passed to her grandchildren — now ages 10, 9, 8, 7 and 3.
Because of Dean’s career in childcare, it will passed on to even more children, now that her center, Come Unto Me Little Children preschool, is participating in a pilot program aimed at increasing the number of words infants and toddlers in childcare in Escambia County hear.
Vicki Pugh, program director for the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County, hopes the project improves the quality of care in centers and eventually boosts kindergarten readiness rates.
The Coalition will use Language Environment Analysis, called the LENA system, in targeted centers to track the interactions between caregivers and infants and toddlers. The LENA records up to 16 hours of audio.
The file is collected and uploaded to the cloud, were specialized software developed by the LENA Research Foundation in Boulder, Colo., automatically analyzes the number of conversational turns that took place with the child. No one listens to the audio and it is deleted after processing.
Inspired in part by Dr. Dana Suskind’s Pensacola appearance, sponsored by Studer Community Institute, the Coalition is excited to use the LENA system to help teachers improve their skills.
“It’s exciting because you can’t argue with your own data,” Pugh says.
It’s one piece of Grow With Me, a program targeting childcare teachers of children ages birth to 3 with professional development to improve the quality of care and education delivered in those centers.
GROW WITH ME PROGRAM
Grow With Me will cover 15 classrooms and 29 teachers in seven childcare centers across the county.
Those teachers will go through a CLASS observation three times a year. CLASS is an observation-based model that measures teacher-child interactions in three broad domains: emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support.
Based on that observation, a teacher will get feedback and coaching on her strengths and strategies to build her areas of improvement.
That targeted coaching, Vicki Pugh says, can include for example, talking to children in a warm, respectful tone about what is going to happen throughout the day. Pugh says there are stipends built in based on their CLASS observations, and data from the LENA pilot will built into that at centers where the LENA is in use.
“The best part is we’re going to move with the child,” Pugh says in terms of using CLASS and targeted professional development. “As the children move up to the 18 months to 2 years, then we’ll start working with those teachers. So that at the end of 4 or 5 years, we’ll have all the teachers at that program improved.”
LENAs have never been used in this way in a childcare setting before, Pugh says. She began the Grow With Me project by looking at which childcare providers who accept children through the School Readiness program and who have a high number of infants and toddlers.
She put on the list centers from throughout the county — “I wanted it to be spread throughout the ZIP codes because that’s the fairest way to get a spot check on everybody,” Pugh says.
Then Pugh spoke to center directors one on one about the program. The LENA piece is being piloted in two centers — Kim’s Mini Blessings and Come Unto Me Preschool.
“They are trailblazers,” Pugh says.
Dean knows the power language has on a developing brain. She’s seen it in her grandchildren.
“My grandkids are very smart kids. Their vocabulary is outstanding,” she says. “My little one, he has more words than I can imagine. I told him the other day, ‘You cannot be in the kitchen when grandma’s cooking. Do you know why?’ And he said, ‘Yes ma’am, because the fire will burn me and I will have to go to the hospital. And you would have to get in the car and drive me there.’”
Escambia on leading edge of LENA
Steve Hannon is president of the LENA Research Foundation in Boulder, Colo., which was founded about 12 years ago. The Escambia project falls under LENA Class, the childcare professional development piece of the Foundation’s products.
The devices have been typically used in home-visitation based programs in a research setting to coach parents on how to increase the words they say to their young children. That includes some 300 projects, such as Suskind’s Thirty Million Words Initiative at the University of Chicago and the Providence Talks project in Rhode Island.
But as Hannon noted, children who are in childcare spend as much as 60 percent of their day there. Making sure those environments are language-rich is important.
“We felt like (moving into childcare centers) was a natural progression,” Hannon says. “Those teachers are pretty critical and many of them are also parents.”
The reports for Early Learning Coalition providers will focus on the number of conversational turns recorded per child. Based on the LENA Foundation’s database, in an average home environment there are 20 conversational turns per hour for a six-month-old and 33 turns per hour for an 18-month-old, Hannon notes.
“What I’m excited about with ELC is that they recognize the littlest ones, and are focusing on lifting them up,” Hannon says. “It’s also about the impact of these teachers over time. They will impact many children in their care over the years.”
The training should also, Hannon notes, improve the providers’ personal and professional prospects. If they have more skills to help children build a better vocabulary, they could command a higher salary, be more marketable in their field and overall improve the quality of childcare in the community at large, he notes.
“(However) at the core of it, they love children and want to do the best for them,” he says.
The first year of the project will cost $39,000 and include buying the devices, vests for the children to wear while they have the LENA on, software licensing and training for childcare center directors, classroom teachers and Coalition staff on how to use the devices.
It also includes information being sent home to parents to explain the LENA project.
Pugh says it will impact 200 children.
“People forget that with babies, they focus on your face,” Pugh says. “You have to talk to them. The whole emerging reading and language starts in that baby room.”
Using a LENA in a research setting with parents helped decrease screen time, which the American Academy of Pediatrics says should be banned for children under 18 months.
Dean has seen a difference in her staff already, she says. Two of her teachers and six of the infants and toddlers in her care are part of the study.
“It has already enhanced my staff’s vocabulary with the kids. They explain everything to them — everything. Even on the changing tables, they’re talking to them,” Dean says. “When they’re at the table eating, they’re talking to them there, too: What color the food is, how it tastes.
“It’s rubbing off on my other classrooms,” Dean says.
At weekly staff meetings, the LENA teachers have shared what they’re doing, so Dean has noticed teachers in the 2-year-old room have started talking more to their children, and using bigger words to expand the children’s vocabulary.
“I think it will be a great success,” she says. “I know it will stay within in the kids because they’re getting more words.”
The feedback for the classroom teachers will be a great asset for them, Hannon says.
“You can’t improve what you don’t measure,” he says. “Most of us overestimate how much we talk to our children. Those of us who talk the least tend to overestimate the most. We found that in the LENA with parents. But we parent how we were parented.
“We told the practitioners what we tell LENA parents — what we’re looking for is growth. And we want those centers to be filled with brain-building moments.”
Intervening early is a key to reversing the achievement gap — a phenomenon that finds children from low-income households hearing 30 million fewer words by age 3 than kids from better-off homes.
That gap, research shows, impacts a child’s kindergarten readiness and performance in school overall.
“Right now we’re asking (elementary school) teachers to do something…. (that) vocabulary deficit is a bridge too far for some of our kiddos,” Hannon says.