(WSAW) – A common metaphor for young children as they are growing up is that their brains are like sponges, soaking up much of the information and experiences around them. There is a lot of research and evidence supporting that comparison and the crucial role the quality of care a child receives during that time has on their future.
“There is a tremendous amount of brain development happening,” Dr. Corina Norrbom, an assistant professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and health fellow for the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service said. “In fact, about 80% of brain development happens before the age of three. It’s mind-boggling.”
Dr. Norrbom explained during that period children’s brains are making about a million neural connections per second. Research over decades has continually added to the weight of evidence supporting the importance of not only that period of brain development, but also of the interactions between children and their adult caregivers.
There’s a lot more knowledge about the why,” she began. “I mean back, like in the mid-90s when they were first doing some studies about the importance of language and parent-child interactions, there was maybe more theory behind that, but now, like with functional MRIs you can see like which pathways are being lit up by particular activities.”
That technology has been able to compare the brains of children who have had a lot of interactions with adults in their home or in child care settings to children who have far less. She said many of the pathways that are created during that development period are in the frontal cortex.
“It has to do with cognition, social, emotional well-being; that little person on your shoulder that says, ‘is that really the right thing to do right now?’ So, these are all really important pieces to where a person goes in life.”
During that time, children are learning about how the world works and how to function within that world, how to cope with stress, how to get what they want and need, basic social norms, and foundations for academic skills like science, math, and literacy.
“Vocabulary at age 3 is correlated with kindergarten readiness, which is correlated with third-grade reading level which is correlated with high school graduation, which is correlated with having a job and steady income later in life,” Dr. Norrbom stated. “Even like, family situations too, it’s correlated (such as stable family structures), or even correlated with whether or not a person is incarcerated later in life. So, all of these steps that really start in that 0 to 3 age period, you know, impact that child, and potentially their children for a lifetime.”
One of the most famous studies looking at the weight that quality preschool education has on children’s outcomes is known as the Perry Preschool Project. It began in the mid-1960s looking at children of similar demographics. Some kids got to go to a high-quality preschool, others did not get the opportunity to go to preschool. The initial results for the children who attended the preschool were so positive, that it has paved the way for decades of focus on the importance of that type of care and education early, despite some criticism of the study.
The participants in that study have been followed over the decades, as well as their children and beyond, with the latest look into how their lives have developed being published in 2019. While initial gains in IQ scores from the preschool participants had reportedly waned in the immediate years following the initial study, there have been what researchers have described as encouraging results among other life factors, such as Dr. Norrbom mentioned earlier like incarceration, schooling, and family lives.
Dr. Norrbom cautioned that while the statistics and research show challenging outcomes for many children who receive poor care and have adverse childhood experiences, children in those situations are not destined for those futures. However, it is often much more challenging for them compared to their peers who received better quality care and did not have or had fewer adverse childhood experiences.
“When a child starts out behind going to kindergarten, it is really hard to catch them up,” she explained. “In fact, if we look at statistics. Most of the time they don’t. And so, if we can. Prevent those gaps from happening in terms of kids that are having a lot of language exposure and development in their homes and childcare settings, and potentially, if there are kids that are not getting that stimulation, they’re going to be entering at different levels and their trajectories are going to be different. You know, it’s just one of those things where, again, if we can stop a gap from happening in the first place, I think that that’s important just to give kids the best shake at reaching their full potential.”
Simple, everyday conversations
A key component that she and others have honed in on that makes a sizeable impact on the positive outcomes of children’s developing brains is the interactions between children and their adult caregivers, such as parents and child care providers. It is a concept sometimes referred to as “serve and return” interactions or as one organization calls them, “conversational turns.” It is simply back-and-forth interactions between a child and an adult.
“So like, if you’re folding clothes, you could do a simple question, like, ‘Oh, what is this?’ And the child may not be of an age where they can say, ‘Well, that’s a sock,’ but you can wait and pause. Maybe that child, kind of, makes an utterance or just looks at you. And (then you could say) ‘Oh, this is a sock, and we put a sock on our foot, and you know, you could talk about their foot,” Dr. Norrbom explained. “Follow their lead because, well, maybe they don’t want to talk about the sock, but if they point at something else across the room, ‘Oh. that’s a…’ you know,” she gestured to suggest another object in that room.
The Talking Tips she said they use in the LENA program are simple for anyone with children in their lives to use:
- Follow the child’s lead.
- Pause after you engage and wait for the child to respond, which could be a word or sentence, a look, or a babble.
- Respond with conversation or a touch, hug, or hold as you get on their level.
Dr. Norrbom said to really engage with them “because there are many times that we’re just kind of in the same room but not really engaged.” Children are constantly learning how the world works, so explaining how things work, what people do with the things around them, and descriptions like what color objects are, counting the elements around them can add to the learning experience.
While simple, the research behind the back-and-forth shows those interactions are powerful for developing the brain structure and function, reading skills, IQ scores, socioemotional development, and language, executive functioning and, reasoning skills.
The same founders of Renaissance, the reading, math, and testing products company used in tens of thousands of schools around the world and started in Wisconsin Rapids, were inspired by that research and wanted to make that work easier to conduct and more automated. The late Terry Paul and his wife, Judi started a nonprofit organization called, LENA or Language Environment Analysis. It developed technology to objectively measure the number of conversational turns a child has with an adult.
LENA researchers found after measuring conversational turns for families and caregivers participating in their programs that while more interactions between the child and adult are better, children who received at least 40 conversational turns per hour were associated with having full-scale IQ scores of 31 percentile points higher on average than their peers who received less. There is some growth in scores beyond that goal (specifically every two additional conversational turns), but researchers said this is where they determined the optimal level of brain development happened.
What researchers describe as “high-talk families” (which made up only 6% of the children at baseline) they found only meet the 40-turn threshold eight hours out of a 12-hour day, which they caveated was practical for caregivers to take a break, for children to nap, and to play independently. They are also not talking for the whole hour, but rather they found it often happened intensely for about 25 minutes with 8-10 turns over a five-minute period.
The “key window” for those interactions is when the children are between the ages of 18- to 24-months-old, but LENA’s data suggest that period is not being used it its fullest.
It tracked interactions of children in the home, in family child care settings, and in child care centers. The most interaction happened in the home with their family. Children in child care settings had fewer conversational turns, with those setting having the least amount of interaction with children during the key age window. Family child care, while behind parents’ or guardians’ rates of interactions, had more interactions than center-based caregivers and most closely resembled the number experienced in the home.
This is especially important now, LENA researchers say, as they found that “babies born during the COVID-19 pandemic are vocalizing less and experiencing less interactive talk with adults than their pre-pandemic peers, suggesting they may be at greater risk of experiencing language delays.” The results of this study are under review in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
The organization developed two programs to help both families and child care providers attain that 40 conversational turns per hour benchmark: LENA Start is for families to help engage in early talk, and LENA Grow is job-embedded professional development for early childhood teachers.
Developing in child care settings
While some parents and caregivers 7 Investigates heard from dismissed some of the education or “curriculum” for children required for regulated child care settings, many others mentioned the knowledge of this period in young humans’ lives as something they hoped was better and more widely known.
“I wish more people understood is that when children between 0- and 5-years-old, that’s when they’re having the most brain development,” Brittany Frahm, the lead teacher in a 2-year-old classroom at Weston’s YMCA said.
“I guess I’ll just kind of put ‘curriculum,’ you know, like in quotes for a 3-year-old is very different than the curriculum for, you know, even 4- and 5-year-olds,” Dr. Norrbom added.
The curriculum depends on the age, but the lessons are all interwoven into play. It is why every element in a child care setting has a purpose.
“The teacher is intentionally set up the classroom so no matter where they’re playing in the classroom, they’re learning something,” Andrea Velasquez, the assistant director of Marathon County Head Start stated.
“Especially during free play, we try to get them to work together so they can learn working on communicating with each other,” Frahm explained. “We try to work with sharing… patience… We like to ask open-ended questions like, ‘Oh, I wonder what would happen if we did this?’ And then usually they’re like, ‘Oh, let’s try!’ And then we’ll try to build something or try to figure out what they could do with those certain toys.”
For infants, like the one Ramona Mathews who owns Honey Tree Day Care in Wisconsin Rapids currently cares for, “We’re teaching her to explore, to reach, to grow up. She’s learning to take things apart or put things together.”
The caregivers are doing regular evaluations to ensure each child is meeting foundational milestones. Mathews gave an example of a 2-year-old in her care.
“She wasn’t counting as much… So, we bring out our numbers or we bring out our number book or Cheerios where we’re counting Cheerios.” She continued, “We do the evaluation, and then we base the next few weeks’ curricula based on the evaluation and then we evaluate again at the end to make sure that they’re hitting the goals that they’re supposed to hit… And then if they are great; if they’re not, if there’s some development, then we talk to the parents about where they need to get for some specialized care.”
Mathews said parents should look at care providers as a partner or a tool in their child’s developmental journey, as they have the education, training, and time with the child to potentially see things that parents or other loved ones may miss.
Getting a ‘Head Start’
Like many other child care providers, Marathon County Head Start staff understand the crucial component quality child care is to a child’s life. The federal program began after “President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in his State of the Union address” in 1964. The structure and design are based on the findings in the Perry Preschool Project mentioned previously, including the level of education they look for in the staff.
“We educate the whole child so we look at involving the parents so we engage with them as we teach them the social, emotional skills and academic skills needed to set that foundation for their future success in school,” Velasquez who has been with the program for more than two decades stated.
Head Start looks a little different in every community based on the type of grant applied for and received at each location. It provides child care for a broad spectrum of families, including many in some of the toughest situations. As part of the program, it staffs case workers and staff do home visits at the beginning and end of the season to build relationships with families and children in their care and offer any resources needed. They also work with parents as part of the educational journey, emphasizing the parent as their child’s most important teacher.
“If you want them to learn and grow and do what you want them to do, you really have to try– they have to trust you and you have to have that relationship,” Velasquez explained.
They have a least one bilingual teacher in every classroom, to help bilingual kids learn in their home language alongside English. In Marathon County’s programs, they have Spanish and Hmong-speaking teachers. They care for children ages 3-5 and they try to keep staffing consistent to help build children’s routines and educational programming, and foster that trusting relationship.
“If you start with a brand new teacher, then they have to get to know the child all over again and sometimes start from scratch because they don’t know how far the child was. So, that consistency is really important.”
She said that has been tougher lately. About half of her teachers have been with the program for several years, while the other half are brand new. They had funding to open up 10 classrooms, but they were only able to staff nine of them until mid-April this year. Head Start’s wages match up with what other child care centers pay teachers in Wisconsin, but Velasquez said they deserve more.
They were ultimately able to staff and open that tenth classroom, allowing the program to serve 179 children. She stated because of the way the program is structured financially, all of those spots are required to be filled. The federal government recently opened eligibility up to families who receive Food Share benefits in an effort to get more people’s children into quality care.
However, she said they are having trouble filling those spots, possibly due to some families’ pandemic hesitancy to put their child in care. At the beginning of the pandemic, they closed from May through June. When they opened up again, they reduced class sizes down to eight children per classroom. They then changed that to 12 children per classroom, and this year bumped it up to 18.
In the meantime, she said they implement the best practices for children to learn and grow in every piece of their day.
“Even when we change diapers, if they’re in a diaper here, we talk about what we’re doing and singing. Even when we’re lining up or washing hands, (we) always make every moment a learning moment, so just really empowering the parents to do that as well.”
Despite a recent study evaluating the effectiveness of Head Start programs that found they had no clear long-term benefits, contrasting previous research, Velasquez said she has seen the impacts their methods have on the lives of children in their care.
“One little guy had when he was 3, he started with me. He ended up reading before he went to kindergarten and this year, he graduated from University of Madison, and he was the commencement speaker this year, and he’s going on to medical school,” she said tearing up. “I’m just excited. It’s just see exciting to see.”
She is referring to Barni Shiferaw.
“I was born in Ethiopia and moved to Wisconsin as a young child,” he said in his commencement speech after some more light-hearted remarks. “My upbringing and childhood are painfully different from that of my peers. It is hard to put into words what my experience has been like, so I’m going to use numbers to help paint a better picture; 0.45%: Those were the odds for my family to win a green card and have the opportunity to move to the United States. Now, if your bookie told you those were the odds of you winning your bet, you’d probably tell him to get lost.”
Shiferaw was 1-year-old when he and his family immigrated to Wausau. He was an athlete, competing in two sports in the same season at Wausau West High School and he had a strong focus on his academic education too.
“What if refusing to take a chance is the only reason that you’re not living out your dream life right now,” he asked his fellow graduates. “Looking back on that statistical miracle, I thank God every day that he has carried me to this point and that my family took that chance.”
He told 7 Investigates he has spent time over the last few years reflecting on his time at Head Start and remembers Velasquez’ care.
“I am grateful that I was able to be a part of Head Start,” he replied in an email. “Looking back, it gave me a huge step up in my early years compared to my peers and especially to where I would have been without Head Start. I think the momentum I had going into elementary school helped me get into programs such as Gifted and Talented in elementary that allowed me to continue to excel academically in middle school, high school, and even college.”
“As I have learned more about the impacts of early age education,” he continued, “I realize the importance of Head Start, especially for children whose parents may not have the time or resources to intentionally work on improving their child’s cognitive development at that age.”
While not all children may experience the same challenges Shiferaw faced, he, early childhood educators, along with the research agree quality care is necessary for all children.
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