LENA Start aims to close the word gap among children

Baby wearing LENA vest. Credit: LENA Research Foundation.

The most important thing we can do for our children is having conversations with them.

Those are Dana Suskind’s words, not mine.

Dr. Suskind is the founder and director of the Thirty Million Words initiative, a research program at the University of Chicago Medicine based on the scientifically demonstrated critical importance of early language exposure on a developing child.

In her book, “Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain,” Dr. Suskind explains the importance of starting to talk right now, way before a baby can talk back.

Research consistently shows that parent talk can dramatically improve school readiness and lifelong learning in every phase of education and life.

The goal of parent talk is to close the word gap.

Studies show that by age 3, children born into low-income families heard roughly 30 million fewer words that their more affluent peers. That gap factors into the growing achievement gap between the poor and the better off in school and life.

Increasing parent talk is one way to overcome the word gap.

At the Studer Community Institute, we have put together materials, activities and programs to help parents learn more about the 30 million-word gap and ways to overcome it.

One of the programs is LENA Start.

LENA technology is the industry standard for measuring talk with children birth to three, a critical factor in early brain development.

In a partnership with the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County, SCI became one the first in Florida to offer LENA Start to parents last year at First Presbyterian Child Discovery Center.

Starting Tuesday, a second LENA Start 13-week session begins at St. Mark United Methodist Church.

Pace Center for Girls will participate once a week in the parent class, sponsored by St. Mark, which will provide the classroom space, food and childcare. We thank St. Mark for it hospitality, with a special commendation to lead volunteer Doug Heatwole for leading the effort to create a partnership and host the session at the church.

The Early Learning Coalition is sponsoring a class at the downtown branch of the West Florida Public Library System.

LENA Start’s primary focus is helping parents build stronger conversational habits that will have an impact on babies by providing parents with a powerful resource to help keep talk top of mind.

The weekly sessions include, among other things, a curriculum of lessons, activities, videos and table exercises.

Based on principles highlighted in the Thirty Million Word Initiative, parents are encouraged and trained to use the three T’s: Tune In, Talk More and Take Turns.

TMW’s foundation is based on the truism that “babies aren’t born smart; they’re made smart”.

Among the most critical parts of the program is the digital recorder, or “talk pedometer.” It is tucked into a vest worn by babies and toddlers (up to 30 months) to record a full day’s worth of talking.

That data is used to generate a report that provides information on the number of words that the child is exposed to as well as the turn-taking interaction, the back and forth that occurred in the child’s language environment throughout the day.

SCI LENA coordinators then will upload the recordings to Lena headquarters, which will generate reports that show how much the parents talked with their children and discuss strategies to help parents talk more throughout the program and as the child continues to develop and grow.

Based on the findings of each report, parents and coaches are able to pinpoint times of the day where lots of talking is taking place and develop strategies to replicate more of these moments, whether it’s taking advantage of downtime in the car during a morning commute or trading out some evening TV time for playtime.

Dr. Suskind believes, as we have grown to understand, that parent talk is probably the most valuable resource in the world.

It’s never too early to start talking and reading to a baby as research shows that you can have a positive impact on your child’s language and cognitive development in the first year.

While it may seem too early to talk and read to baby, it is actually in these first months that early communication skills are developing.

The more connections you help your baby’s brain build by talking will influence how ready and able to learn he or she will be later in life.

And that, in a nutshell, is what our parent programs are all about.