Expanding parent programs to help build babies’ brains

Parents in the Thirty Million Words Initiative learn the importance of talking to their babies from birth. Photo credit: TMW.

When it comes to babies and toddlers, learning takes place through play, the energetic exploration of their environment. But more importantly, learning comes through the positive interactions with significant adults in their lives.

Gaps between children of different income levels in the amount of talk, vocabulary growth and style of interaction appear early and widen long before a child enters school.

Relationships with parents and caregivers are crucial as the brain develops the complex web of visual, language, motor and social-emotional connections essential for later learning.

Helping parents understand this important relationship is at the crux of Studer Community Institute’s Parent Outreach and LENA Start programs.

By providing training, tools and skills for parents to help build babies’ brains, these parent programs play an important role in help families support their child’s health growth and development.

Young children develop in the context of their families, where support relationships nurture their growth.

For parents facing economic difficulties, it can be especially challenging to provide their children the necessities of life.

But one thing any parent can provide is the power of the spoken word. Word power is brain power.

Words are food to a baby’s brain. The more words a child hears in the first three years of life, the stronger the connections in the brain will be.

Since July, the Studer Community Institute’s Parent Outreach Program has focused on helping parents use the power they have to build their babies’ brains through words.

For one hour each week, SCI staff offers tips, training and strategies in early learning initiatives for parents of children under 4 years old in Pensacola Area Housing Commission campuses at Moreno and Attucks courts.

The ultimate goal is to reach parents with helpful ways to engage their children and build babies’ brains, and in the long run, build lives and a better community.

The one hour, once-a-week parent programs uses educational information and techniques from the University of Chicago Thirty Million Word Initiative and LENA Start, emphasizing the key component of the three T’s: Tune in, Talk to and Take turns.

SCI staff also builds lessons and activities from early learning curricula, textbooks, websites and other sources that focuses on using language to help parents help their children reach developmental milestones.

Another parent-centered program offered by SCI is LENA Start.

LENA stands for Language Environment Analysis. The LENA system measures the way parents and their young children converse.

Lena Start is focused on helping parents build stronger conversational habits that will have an impact on babies in the program’s 13-week duration by providing parents with a powerful resource to keep talk top of mind.

Pensacola was the first site for LENA Start in Florida.

At the First Presbyterian Child Discovery Center, parents participated in the weekly sessions that include a curriculum of lessons, activities, videos and table exercises.

The Early Learning Coalition of Escambia combined a group of parents at Kid’s Club on Davis Highway for a second session.

Outcomes show that babies whose caregivers have participated in the program are building five months of language development in two months’ time.

As we embark on a new year, we want to expand Parent Outreach and LENA Start programs in other places to serve more parents and their children.

Conversations, meetings and planning sessions are taking place at area daycares, community centers and affordable housing complexes to offer helpful ways to engage parents and build babies’ brains, and in the long run, build lives and a better community.

At SCI, we’re taking small steps in many ways each day to make Pensacola’s America’s First Early Learning City.

Parent Outreach and LENA Start are key components of becoming an Early Learning City by ensuring that parents are ably prepared to help their build their babies’ brains, prepare their young children for kindergarten and help them reach important developmental milestones in their lives.