On a warm spring afternoon in Houston, Texas, a 2-year-old named Nadia shrieked with joy as she rocketed down the slide at a local playground.
Her dad, Ivan, caught her in a bear hug at the bottom, while her mom, Hazel, looked on with a grin. Though seasoned experts now, both had been nervous about the transition to parenthood before Nadia arrived.
“She’s our first and only child, so we didn’t really know what to do when we were expecting her,” Ivan said. “That’s why we decided to sign up for the upWORDS program. And it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.”
The upWORDS program — one of 18 LENA Start programs nationwide — is run through Texas Children’s Hospital, where both Hazel and Ivan work.
“It sounded very interesting, the part about how you can interact with a baby,” Hazel said. “I was like okay, she’s a baby, how can you talk to her?” She laughed.
During the classes, the parents learned strategies for increasing interactive talk with children through the core LENA Start curriculum, and explored supplementary topics like car seat safety added by Texas Children’s staff. Nadia’s family is one of more than 1,500 who have graduated from LENA Start, with the most recent spring 2018 groups graduating earlier this month.
As a key piece of each session, they watched videos of parents having conversations with their children and discussed their observations with the group.
“Everything we learned we would put into practice. When we got home, we would start talking to her,” Hazel said.
At each session, after capturing a full day of talk at home using LENA technology, the parents received a report showing the number of adult words, conversational turns, and minutes of TV and electronic noise. Seeing the report helped Hazel and Ivan to realize how much time Nadia was spending in front of the TV and iPad.
“We learned how to interact more with her instead of relying on the electronic devices,” Hazel explained. “It was very interesting to see how the more you talk with your baby, the more she becomes more intelligent.”
And Hazel and Ivan aren’t the only ones. Even as the number of families who have participated in LENA Start has grown by a third since the end of 2017, outcomes have remained consistent. Families achieved significant gains in adult words, conversational turns, and reading minutes, especially those who started out low in words or turns.
As Nadia enthusiastically ran laps around the swing-set at the playground, Hazel commented to her on what she was doing and saying, using descriptive words to talk about the swing, the mulch on the ground, and the color of the trees around. Nadia chatted back conversationally.
“We can definitely see the difference between her and other children who are her same age. She talks more, she knows more words, and overall she’s acting like she engages better with everyone, not just us,” Ivan said.
These back and forth interactions with Nadia are the most critical piece of all because conversational turns are the most powerful predictor of later developmental and life outcomes. And, she’s already passed one milestone that some children won’t reach for many more years — her first graduation.
Eighty percent of families who attend session one graduate from LENA Start and are presented with an M.B.A — “My Baby’s Awesome” certificate.
Parents also complete a survey on their perceptions of parenting at both the first and final sessions. At graduation, parents report spending more time reading and talking with their children. They also showed increases on items related to having a deeper understanding of child development, decreased stress, and increased self-efficacy.
For Hazel and Ivan, the graduation certificate affirmed what they already felt inside — that they had gained the confidence and skills to nurture Nadia toward a brighter future.