“Mae Mae’s House”: One teacher’s story behind an evaluation of LENA Grow in Milwaukee

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Mae Xiong has been teaching preschool for nearly three decades, and she’s very upfront about what has motivated her dedication to the profession. For instance, her own experience as a child is still top of mind.

“As a child,” she said. “I feel like I did not have the right to voice my feelings, to voice my needs.”

She wants to foster a different environment for the children in her care, and she’s come to trust that her responsiveness as a teacher creates strength in her children.

“They have the right to voice how they feel, what’s going on in their mind, and what’s going on inside of them,” she said.

Mae currently teaches at Neighborhood House of Milwaukee, one of 13 partnership sites of the nonprofit Next Door. Next Door’s Childcare Partnership Program provides coaching services to these partner schools, with the goal of bolstering the educational workforce throughout the region. Next Door has been serving the city’s families since 1969 and operates two of its own center-based sites as well.

“Some of the kids call Neighborhood House ‘Mae Mae’s House’,” Mae said. “I want them to feel good coming here, as their second home.”

Among the innovations that Next Door has brought to its sites over the years is LENA Grow, a professional development program for early childhood educators that uses “talk pedometer” technology to emphasize the importance of interactive adult-child communication. These interactions, called conversational turns, have been linked to accelerated socioemotional growth and vocabulary skills, among other positive outcomes. Unfortunately, on average, children experience significantly less adult-child interaction in child care centers than at home.

Since 2019, nearly 500 children and over 100 teachers have participated in LENA Grow at Next Door. Partnering with researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette University, Next Door recently completed an independent evaluation of the program. Among the findings:

  • Increases in the number of adult words children heard and the number of conversational turns they experienced.
  • Accelerated gains in TS GOLD® literacy scores, as compared to a group of children that did not participate in LENA Grow.
  • Increases in Teacher Perception Survey results. For instance, 81% of participating teachers reported increased feelings of self-efficacy, compared to 33% of teachers who did not participate in LENA Grow.
  • Increases in CLASS® scores, especially in the domains of Facilitation of Learning, Behavior Guidance, and Quality of Feedback.


Next Door is one of two LENA Grow partners to have completed a program evaluation recently, joining the SproutFive Center for Early Childhood Innovation in Columbus, Ohio. SproutFive saw similarly impressive results, both for children and teachers.

“We got great feedback from teachers,” said Michael McConeghy, manager of the Child Care Partnership program at Next Door. “Teachers became more engaged in the professional development because it was concentrated around one topic. There was a single focus of classroom language as the goal.”

For her part, Mae Xiong has kept the 14 Talking Tips poster on her classroom’s wall, even long after the program’s completion. In fact, she credits her dedication to the 14 Talking Tips, research-based techniques for increasing early talk, for the changes she’s seeing in her children.

“Even the quietest ones have opened up and are talking more,” she said. “Helping them develop more words will make them feel stronger, and make them more confident in talking to a teacher or their friends.”

McConeghy said he’s seen the positive Teacher Perception Survey results play out in the classroom.

“Specifically for the first treatment group, there were five children in that room who had IEPs around behavior and language,” he said. “Prior to LENA teacher stress in that classroom was off the charts. With LENA, there was a calm that came over the classroom, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”

Webinar — Evaluating LENA Grow’s impact on early childhood education classrooms 

Learn more about Next Door's evaluation of LENA Grow.

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Download the program evaluation

cover image of Next Door Milwaukee LENA Grow evaluation report
Read the full program evaluation:
“Evaluation of LENA Grow in Milwaukee Head Start Classrooms.”

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LENA Team

The LENA Team is a dedicated group of professionals who are passionate about increasing awareness of the importance of early interactive talk. We are statisticians, speech-language pathologists, curriculum specialists, engineers, and linguists.

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