Talking to Babies and Toddlers: Why it Matters

When my children were small, we talked to them all the time. In the car, while they were in the stroller, while we ate dinner. We encouraged their responses and their questions. It's how my husband and I were raised, and we learn from our earliest role models, our parents.

More than 20 years ago, a study was released showing that children from middle- and upper-income families hear up to 30 million more words during their first three years of life than their low-income peers. This gap has been linked to discrepancies in language acquisition, vocabulary skills, and reading comprehension (as well as academic achievement in general).

Recently, MIT researchers published a new study that shows that the quality of the conversation between adults and children actually changes the structure of the brain. The important aspect of the conversation is just that: the back-and-forth exchange.

As a nation, we didn’t do much to fix the “30 million word gap” – and I wonder whether we will commit to doing anything to incorporate these new findings into our funding priorities for young children.

In 2001, I founded a grant-funded program that provided parent education and support to families with children from birth to age 5. My team of parent educators and I visited our clients’ homes every week to share information about early brain development, activities and ideas for meaningful interactions, the importance of play and conversation, and developmental milestones to expect.

After all, parents are their children’s first teachers. If we do not invest in programs to support families, we are losing critical time in the years before children enter preschool. The ROI for early childhood programs has been estimated at $4 - $9 for every $1 spent, depending on the program and study.

It is hard to overemphasize the importance of programs that offer parent outreach and education, financial subsidies to ensure that families can afford quality early childhood education and care, and flexible leave policies that allow parents to engage with their children in significant ways.

The achievement gap between students living in poverty and their higher-income peers is well-documented. We CAN do things to ameliorate the problem. We have to tell our lawmakers that these things matter to us, as a country. Because they do.

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