Program to Help Toddlers Bolster Language

Wausau Daily Herald – Frank Giese woke up from his afternoon nap with a scowl, looking like he wanted nothing more than a cup of coffee.

But Frank is 10 months old, so instead his mom, Rachel Giese, scooped him out of his cradle, hugged him, and then sat down on the floor with him.

“Hi bugaboo,” Rachel said. “Are you gonna smile?” Frank looked at her for a second, then grinned and cooed softly. “Yeah!” Rachel said.

And just like that, Frank Giese’s burgeoning brain got just a little bit better.

What occurred was what researchers call a “conversational turn,” a snippet of interpersonal give and take. Even tykes who garble baby-talk communicate through the interactions they have with parents and other people. Those connections are essential building blocks to a child’s language development — and even more than that, to their capacity to learn.

Frank is part of a new pilot program, the first of its kind in Wisconsin, that pairs families with a new technology that counts the words babies hear and the conversational turns they experience — and helps train parents to make a point of having these exchanges. Its promise? To help make sure all kids get a chance to flourish.

The research shows the more words children hear, the more turns children experience in their first three years, the better their brains develop, and the better they’ll do. Conversely, there’s a mountain of evidence showing children lag behind when they don’t get enough talk and interaction as babies. Those problems dog them throughout their days in school and beyond. Researchers say children who grow up poor and children of racial minorities are statistically more likely to be on the bad side of those language and achievement gaps.

Rachel and 20 other sets of parents learned how to better engage with their children in a groundbreaking program offered in Marathon County called LENA Start, an initiative of the LENA Research Foundation, a nonprofit based in Boulder, Colorado. The foundation began in 2009 and started offering LENA Start programs in 2015. Now, LENA Start has expanded to 17 metro areas across the country, according to the LENA website. The Marathon County pilot program was the first time LENA Start was offered in Wisconsin; another has since begun in Madison.

LENA, an acronym for Language Environment Analysis, is based on mountains of research that maintains interactive talk with preschool children is a key factor in early brain development. In its effort to help parents and others understand how much they connect with their children, LENA developed a small digital recording device that records the words a child hears, a kind of Fitbit for talk. It produces hard data on just how much conversational attention children get, counting words, turns and the number of minutes spend in front TVs or other devices.

The Marathon County effort was the first time LENA Start was offered in Wisconsin. Those who participated in it, including Rachel Giese, say it changed the way they approached raising their children, helping them connect in meaningful ways. They found out that they didn’t speak to their children as much as they thought they did. Many discovered that they allowed their children too much television and computer time.

The program’s organizers say the pilot program is just the beginning. They hope to expand it into workplaces and schools across the county. They want to encourage low-income parents, minority parents, parents struggling with addictions to participate.

All this talk, they hope, will pay off with a generation of better and smarter students and happier families.

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