University of Chicago research launches in Pensacola

What if you could change a person’s future with just a word?

Or two. Or 10. Or 10,000.

You can, and that’s the message that researchers from the University of Chicago want to convey to parents across the country — starting in Pensacola.

In late August, the University of Chicago began using Pensacola as part of the research pool for a new-parent education tool they are developing.

The university’s Thirty Million Words (TMW) Initiative, a research project housed in the School of Economics, uses several strategies to help parents understand the power of early talk to build a young child’s brain.

Dr. Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon and founder of TMW, and her team hope that the strategies they are building will help eliminate the “achievement gap.” That gap, identified by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s paper, “Meaningful Difference,” is linked to the number and type of words that children hear in the first three years of life.

TMW is based on a study by two Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley, who found some children hear 30 million more words by their fourth birthday than others. The children who heard 30 million more words were more likely to be ready to learn at the start of preschool, and by the third grade, they had bigger vocabularies, were stronger readers and scored higher on cognitive tests.

A key takeaway of the study, Suskind has said, is that children who started school ahead tended to stay ahead, and children who started school behind tended to stay behind.

Data from the Institute’s Pensacola Metro Dashboard — a set of 16 metrics that gauge the educational, economic and social well-being of the community — indicate that nearly one-third of Escambia County’s kindergartners are not ready for school on the first day.

Chicago has several interventions — one focused on home-visits, one focused on well-baby visits in the first six months of a child’s life, and another for newborns.

That newborn intervention — called TMW Newborn — is an educational video and survey that aims to get parents talking with their newborns from day one. It is given in the hospital — before moms, dads and new babies go home.

All three of Pensacola’s major birthing hospitals — Baptist, Sacred Heart and West Florida — will participate in the study. It is the first application of TMW Newborn across an entire community.

The project began at Sacred Heart Hospital in late August. As of early December, just fewer than 500 families have completed the project.

“We are honored to be chosen as the first hospital in Pensacola to participate in the Thirty Million Words research project with the University of Chicago,” says Susan Davis, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Health System. “Early intervention is the key to giving children the best start at life, and this program is a wonderful way to begin that process.”

How TMW Newborn works

Every infant’s hearing is tested before the child leaves the hospital. The TMW Newborn video is used in conjunction with this Universal Newborn Hearing Screening, given to moms right around the time her baby’s hearing is being tested.

The video teaches parents about the impact that words and interaction have on a child’s cognitive development. Its survey is meant to gauge what moms know about language and early brain development before the video — and what they’ve learned about it after watching.

The video has been produced in 9-minute and 14-minute versions, in Spanish and English. There are also versions with questions that interrupt the video that mom must answer to make the video continue.

It was piloted with about 500 families in Chicago through two hospitals — Northwestern University and University of Chicago. It aims to teach parent more about the link between language and brain development.

Pensacola moms are now part of the next wave of testing on the platform.

Ashley Telman is the manager of professional development and curriculum at TMW.

“Newborn is our widest reaching intervention,” Telman says. “Any parent of a newborn can participate and learn from it. It’s really promising and exciting to know that as the curriculum evolves, we see new parents across the spectrum all improve their knowledge around child development and interaction.”

Data for the pilot are being prepared for peer review, and preliminary results indicate that the video boosts mom’s knowledge about early brain development and her role in it.

— 99 percent of moms found the video helpful.
— 98 percent of moms learned something new.
— 97 percent of moms said they would use the strategies they learned at home.
— Six weeks later, 75 percent of moms retained knowledge they learned from the video.

Early in 2018, the Pensacola pool should be big enough that preliminary results from our community are able to be shared.

So far, results are promising.

“It’s been wonderful working with Pensacola,” Telman says. “We’ve learned so much from our partners, from working with the hospitals and how to work best with community partners. It has been remarkable uptake of the program in Pensacola.”

Telman added, “The screeners at Scared Heart have been phenomenal. They have a 99 percent recruitment rate, which is phenomenal.”

Since the project began, 644 Pensacola families have been recruited, and 498 have successfully completed the survey.

“It’s humbling for me to look at the data week after week and see this great participation rate, and the great results we’re seeing in the field,” Telman says.

Under the research agreement, participating hospitals will share aggregated number of births, the number of hearing screenings and the number of failed screenings. The University of Chicago will share the de-identified results of each hospital’s mothers results on the survey.

Building a partnership

The Studer Community Institute’s partnership with TMW is what brought the project to Pensacola.

Now Pensacola area mothers are helping the team in Chicago improve the messaging in the video, which the researchers hope will ultimately become standard viewing for parents everywhere before they head home with their new bundle of joy.

Early data is showing, Telman says, that moms and dads are learning from the research video.

“And we’re leaving them with a feeling that they really are the experts … and activating in them the knowledge that they do have the power to do this,” Telman says. “It’s an extremely exciting partnership for us.”