Connecting Systems to Serve Families

By Laura Camp, Business Development Manager for LENA; Former South Carolina classroom teacher and school district early childhood program administrator

As any experienced educator will tell you, there are moments in your career that redefine your focus. For me, a pivotal moment happened in a first-grade classroom where a group of students was engaged in a conversation about Little Red Riding Hood. When the discussion turned to the difference between a cloak and a jacket, not a single six-year-old could identify the word “sleeve.”

Why does this matter? 

As the graphic below illustrates, early language is connected to later outcomes. Vocabulary deficits in early childhood lead to future struggles with reading fluency and comprehension, which in turn can impact high school graduation rates and much in life after that.

Graphic provided courtesy of LENA.

Studies published just this year validate the relationship between conversational turns and brain activity and structure, as well as future impacts on IQ and other school achievement measures. Research shows that many parents, regardless of income, don’t have enough conversations with their children to encourage healthy brain growth, and leaders in education are quick to point out that “language nutrition” is important for all children.

So, given that gaps in school readiness can be seen early and are known to persist, why do many families still struggle to connect effectively with the programs and agencies providing services focused on improving these foundations?

The Talk to Me Partnership 

A big part of the challenge is that services across agencies are not aligned, making access more complicated for families. In response to this barrier, many South Carolina communities are creating innovative partnerships, including one that I’ve worked closely with – a partnership in Cherokee County focused on school readiness data pointing to gaps in early language and literacy skills.

At first glance, fixing early language gaps sounds easy… just tell parents to talk more! Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. We often overestimate the amount we talk to, and especially talk with, our children. The partnership set out to find ways to make everyday interactions easier and more intuitive. Using two implementation models – LENA Start, a small group model, and LENA Home, a home visiting program – the partnership provides 13 weeks of coaching, practice, and feedback around the importance of early talk.

Why is feedback so important?

Through reports generated from a LENA device (also referred to as a “talk pedometer”), parents see the number of words they are speaking to their child, and more importantly, the number of conversational turns. Parents can determine which times of day were most interactive and what they were doing with their child during those times.

As a parent, how often do you get a pat on the back for your hard work? Imagine the excitement of seeing your progress on paper! Using this type of objective feedback over time creates a sustained level of success for parents, whose overwhelming response has been, “Why didn’t anyone help me do this sooner?”

The results include significant increases in measures of words and conversational turns, as well as accelerated language development for participating children. This is how the partnership measures its success and shares program data with funders, including the SC Education Oversight Committee that administers the SC Community Block Grant for Education Pilot Programs. The state’s support helped to encourage real inter-agency collaboration for best practices within early childhood systems as the program enters its third year of implementation.

What have we learned?

The program’s success calls attention to the urgent need for family service agencies to unite in ways that simplify access. While the challenges in building a cohesive partnership can be many, the work accomplished highlights some of the early childhood innovations being implemented in South Carolina. Other examples include The City of Spartanburg, working to implement a collaborative and connected early childhood program continuum model, and the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative working in Berkeley, Charleston, and Dorchester counties to improve the collective impact of multiple service providers.

State-level policies and systems impact the day-to-day life of program implementers, and S.C. communities are taking a close look at how to rebuild more connected, system-wide capacity. If you’re planning such a collaboration, I’d suggest starting with these questions:

  • How will we align and connect services across the divide between birth to three and school-age programs?
  • How will we eliminate current barriers to collaboration – multiple programs serving the same families, competition over funding sources?
  • How will our services measure and communicate outcomes data related to school readiness?
  • What systems will we put in place to engage other local stakeholders around the topic of early childhood/family education and support?

Supporting families and young children is a smart investment. The partnership highlighted here emphasizes the need for continued systems-level changes and innovative methods to better align these services – changes that families need long before their child’s first day of kindergarten!

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