Vera Dunson was skeptical at first. After all, she’s in her 70s, and she knows how to take great care of the kids in her classroom – what difference was having them wear a little device once a week going to make? But the results surprised her.
“I am encouraged because I see the results in my children,” says Ms. Dunson, an early childhood educator at a childcare center in Pensacola. “I know the children are learning more quickly because of my active participation.”
Last fall, Ms. Dunson became part of a pilot program called LENA Grow at the childcare center where she teaches, implemented in Pensacola through a partnership with the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County (ELC). LENA Grow measures the amount of talk going on in a classroom, providing objective feedback that helps teachers talk more with children. Ms. Dunson particularly noticed the benefits of participating with one child who has made significant gains since the program began.
"He is actually speaking words now, and it makes me excited to talk to him more! He can say my name!"
Research indicates that early talk (birth to three) builds babies’ brains, but that children of families struggling with poverty tend to experience millions fewer words and conversations than children from more affluent families. During this period, babies’ brains grow to 80% of their adult size, so this is the critical window to prevent gaps in kindergarten readiness. Since many children spend a large portion of their day in a childcare setting, increasing interactive talk in early childhood classrooms is essential to making a difference in cognitive, social, and emotional growth.
Through LENA Grow, children wear a “talk pedometer” developed by the LENA that enables teachers to measure how much they talk with their students. The children wear the LENA device about once a week. After that, the teachers meet with a coach from ELC to talk through a LENA report that shows how much they spoke with the kids in their classroom. Then the teacher and coach discuss strategies to help the teacher talk more throughout the day.
ELC launched the LENA Grow program as a pilot last fall, and has since quickly expanded it. Starting in three classrooms at two childcare centers, it is now rolling out to reach 129 children in 12 classrooms. Early results from the pilot show that teachers in the toddler classrooms have increased how much they are speaking to the children by 54 percent, and the children are responding back 88 percent more than before the program on average. The infant classrooms also show substantial increases in interaction.
“We’re just getting started,” says Bruce Watson, Executive Director of the Early Learning Coalition. “The teachers are surprised by their own data and how it motivates them. We’ve found that even teachers who aren’t participating in the program yet are paying attention to what the LENA teachers are saying and doing, and now they are talking more as well!”
In creating LENA Grow for childcare providers, LENA expands offerings that have traditionally focused on the home environment. This new model factors years of experience using LENA technology to help parents increase talk with their children in programs like LENA Start in five cities across the country, Providence Talks in Providence, Rhode Island, and the Thirty Million Words® Initiative in Chicago.
“We’re thrilled with the results that ELC has seen so far and by their drive to expand the program,” said Dr. Stephen Hannon, president and chief operating officer of LENA. “LENA Grow is an efficient way to bring awareness of talk and interaction to childcare teachers so they can help their kids even more effectively. Quality early education and care programs help close gaps, so we’re happy to establish a solution that can make a real difference for children in the earliest years of life.”