Bridging research and practice in early childhood education: SproutFive’s independent evaluation of LENA Grow

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The teachers, coaches, center directors, and researchers at SproutFive seem to know that they work at a pretty unique place.

For one, it’s an organization that’s been around for over a century. SproutFive got its start as South Side Day Nursery in 1922 and has been serving families in Columbus, Ohio, ever since. And what’s more, they’ve never stopped innovating.

“The way they have different research studies going on and give back to the educational community is pretty interesting,” said Melanie Senter, a teacher and coach who has been at SproutFive since 2017 and has been in the early childhood field since she was 16 years old. “We’re giving kids the tools to learn how to learn and to enjoy learning, to experiment and to make mistakes.”

Beyond operating four early learning centers and shaping the lives of over 200 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers annually, SproutFive’s team does so much in service of their mission to reimagine early learning. They engage in sophisticated research, present findings at national conferences, advocate for early childhood education on a national policy level, and commit to workforce development as few others do.

Putting practice into research and research into practice

Innovation and impact were top priorities for Colin Page McGinnis when he joined SproutFive as CEO in 2018. Coming from an academic background, he wanted to make sure his research had real-world applications. Hence, the creation of the Center for Early Childhood Innovation, SproutFive’s research arm.

preschooler wearing a LENA device and cutting a piece of paper

The LENA device fits unobtrusively inside a vest.

“I’m really interested in closing the gap between research and practice,” Page McGinnis said. “I want research to come from practicing teachers and from community-based organizations like SproutFive, and I want to shift the conversation about reimagining the field of early childhood through the practitioner lens and layering research on top of it.”

Central to those goals, he said, is SproutFive’s partnership with LENA.

The organization adopted LENA Grow as a professional development opportunity for its early educators in the summer of 2021. Powered by LENA’s “talk pedometer” technology and strengths-based coaching, LENA Grow helps early childhood educators sharpen their focus on the importance of conversational turns, which have been linked to socioemotional development, vocabulary skills, long-term academic performance, and foundational brain structure and function. On average, children in child care centers experience much less interactive talk than children in home settings.

True to their commitment to bridging research and practice, SproutFive embarked on an independent evaluation of LENA Grow soon after implementing the program. The resulting report, called “The Impact of a Language-Based Intervention with Individualized Coaching in Early Childhood Education Classrooms,” was released in late 2022.

Download the program evaluation

cover image of SproutFive LENA Grow evaluation report

Read the full summary of the program evaluation: “The Impact of a Language-Based Intervention with Individualized Coaching in Early Childhood Education Classrooms.”

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SproutFive’s LENA Grow program evaluation

“I think LENA Grow is such a great professional development opportunity for all of our teachers.”

That’s high praise, of course, and it’s the conclusion Dr. Jaclyn Dynia reached after completing the program evaluation and writing the report. Dynia has been SproutFive’s Senior Director of Innovation and Research since early 2021.

“This program was the first time that teachers were able to see data around what was happening in their classrooms, and in a real-time setting.”

-Dr. Jaclyn Dynia, Senior Director of Innovation and Research at SproutFive

“This program was the first time that teachers were able to see data around what was happening in their classrooms, and in a real-time setting,” she said. “Allowing teachers to see some more of that actual feedback on the conversational turns that were happening in their classrooms was really motivating.”

In total, 106 children across eight classrooms took part in the study, with an average age around 40 months. Classrooms were randomly assigned to either participate or not participate in LENA Grow. Twenty teachers took part in the study, almost all of them with over 15 years’ teaching experience. Nine teachers and 58 children participated in LENA Grow, while 11 teachers and 48 children did not.

The program evaluation asked three primary research questions:

  • Did children in classrooms that participated in LENA Grow experience an increase in interactive talk with their teachers?
  • After participating in LENA Grow, did children make significant gains in TS GOLD® language and literacy scores?
  • After participating in LENA Grow, did teachers change their beliefs about language development, job satisfaction, and self-efficacy?

The data: Conversational turn rates, TS GOLD® scores, and Teacher Perception Survey results

Conversational turn rates

By the end of the LENA Grow program, participating children saw a significant increase in conversational turns of 13%. This is an impressive result, especially considering that the baseline conversational turn rates were abnormally high, approximately 40% above the national average.

For children who started the program below the national average of 15 turns per hour, the gains were even more impressive. These children experienced 80% more interaction by the end of the program than they had at the beginning of the program.

TS GOLD® scores

Children who participated in LENA Grow experienced an average increase of 49 points in language scaled scores. That’s compared to the average increase of 10 points that non-Grow children experienced.

Results were similar within the literary domain. Children who participated in LENA Grow gained 39 points on average, while those who did not participate in LENA Grow lost two points.

Teacher Perception Survey results

LENA’s Teacher Perception Survey asks teachers to answer 14 questions on how they feel about the early childhood profession. Each question falls into one of three domains:

  • Job satisfaction — for instance, how often they feel stressed, how often they tell friends they enjoy their job, and how valued they feel as early childhood educators.
  • Self-efficacy — for instance, how confident they are in their students’ future school success, in their ability to interpret data, and in their being on the cutting edge of the early childhood education workforce.
  • Beliefs and actions that support equitable language development — for instance, how much they read to their students, how often they talk with families about children’s language development, and how often behavioral issues arise.

Teachers who participated in LENA Grow experienced increases in 11 of 14 items on the survey, consistent with LENA’s previous analysis of teachers’ responses from a national sample. Among the most intriguing results: Teachers who participated in LENA Grow experienced a significant positive change in the domain of job satisfaction, while non-Grow teachers did not.

“The finding around the support and the professionalism that the teachers felt by participating in LENA Grow was really interesting to me and actually got me really excited,” Page McGinnis said. “It’s often the case that teachers can’t connect with professional development, that professional development is just something that’s mandatory.”

Persevering through the pandemic

SproutFive hasn’t been immune to the unprecedented challenges facing the field of early childhood education. However, Page McGinnis remains optimistic about the future, noting that 2023 should see SproutFive directly serve an additional 100 children. In addition, more than 80% of the teachers who were at SproutFive before the pandemic have stuck it out. Those who did leave, he said, ended up leaving the profession altogether.

"Early childhood takes a toll on you. It takes a toll on your physical health. It takes a toll on your emotional health and well-being, seeing some of the things that the kiddos are going through. I don’t think I can fault teachers for saying, ‘You know what, I think I’m going to change things up.’”

-Dr. Colin Page McGinnis, CEO at SproutFive

“Even with the wage adjustments we’ve made, early childhood takes a toll on you,” he said. “It takes a toll on your physical health. It takes a toll on your emotional health and well-being, seeing some of the things that the kiddos are going through. I don’t think I can fault teachers for saying, ‘You know what, I think I’m going to change things up.’”

He attributes SproutFive’s high retention rate to the professional supports the organization provides. Among those supports is SproutFive’s own Project NUDL (Nuture, Understand, Discover, Learn), an initiative designed to provide professional development for early childhood educators and address wage disparities at one and the same time.

Also among them, as Dynia points out, is LENA Grow.

“The field overall is seeing a lot of burnout and turnover, whether teachers are leaving the field altogether or cycling through different programs,” Dynia said. “The idea that there is a professional development opportunity that actually helps increase teachers’ job satisfaction and lowers their stress is very important to us.”

Melanie Senter, the SproutFive teacher and coach who’s been at it since she was 16, knows why she likes LENA Grow. In fact, it’s related to why she remains dedicated to the profession.

“What we do is the building blocks for everything else,” she said. “And LENA Grow: it focuses on the positives. It says, ‘Hey, let’s give you more ideas on how to keep growing.’”

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

Learn more about SproutFive's evaluation of LENA Grow.

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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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