Sunday February 05, 2017

Baby vest measures talk between parent and child

In the LENA Start program, a child wears the LENA vest and recorder for one full day each week.

In the LENA Start program, a child wears the LENA vest and recorder for one full day each week. (LENA Research Foundation)

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It's more than just baby talk. It's long been known that talking with babies and toddlers is crucial for their development.

The LENA Research Foundation, a charitable foundation based in Boulder, Colorado, is working to help families improve those conversations.

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Dr. Jill Gilkerson (LENA Research Foundation)

Jill Gilkerson, Senior Director of Research and Evaluation for the foundation, says "Research has shown that talk in early childhood, in the window from zero to three, is the single most important factor that drives both brain development and kindergarten readiness."

Those early language skills can also lead to continued academic success later in life.

"If we want a society that is educated and that is economically successful, we have to start with the first link which is early language exposure," says Gilkerson.     

LENA stands for Language Environment Analysis. The LENA system measures the way parents and their young children converse.

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A parent shares her report with a classmate in the LENA Start program during a session in Huntsville, Alabama. (LENA Research Foundation)

It uses a piece of wearable tech for babies and toddlers (up to age three) that uses a digital recorder that tucks into a vest to record full a day's worth of conversation.

"So that recorder," Gilkerson says, "will record everything that the child says and everything that's spoken around them continuously throughout the day."

However, nobody's actually listening to those conversations. LENA's software analyzes the pattern of those conversations and turns it into data.

That data is used to generate a report to that provides information on the number of words that the child was exposed to "as well as the turn taking interactions, the back and forth that occurred in the child's language environment throughout the day," Jill says. "We also provide information on the amount of TV and electronic media that the child is experiencing."

The feedback provided by the report helps parents find ways to increase interactive talk with their little ones. "It's that objective feedback that's just so powerful for motivating parents," says Gilkerson.

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One of the families who graduated from the LENA Start program in San Mateo County, California. ( LENA Research Foundation)

Parents are then provided with proven techniques to help improve conversations with their small children.

"We're doing things like focusing on shared book reading, not just sitting down with the child and reading the book from page one to the end," Jill explains.

"It's talking about what's happening, talking about the pictures, letting your child engage in back and forth during that book reading episode. Other things like singing songs, rhyming, narrating your day, all these things that sometimes don't come naturally to parents."