Everyone strives to do what is best for his or her children. Parenting books provide plenty of information, concerned family members lend plenty of well-meaning advice, and health professionals try to provide balanced material that is evidence-based and meant to be as helpful and straightforward as possible.
Pediatricians themselves seek sound scientific evidence when counseling their families. While pediatricians train for years and then practice in an environment of lifelong learning and continuous improvement, they are always ready to embrace scientific evidence to guide their practice. Such evidence now exists for the advantages of early communication with your children.
Work back in the 1990s by researchers Hart and Risley noted the dramatic difference in the vocabulary when children were raised in different circumstances in their early years. When raised in an environment with greater exposure to expanded language skills (a professional family) as compared to a family with potentially fewer language skills (a less fortunate family in poverty), there was a nearly 30 million-word gap. That is, the latter group of children was exposed to nearly 30 million fewer words over the first four years of life. This difference can have a dramatic effect on early education and learning for the rest of their lives.
These effects can be tied to numerous developmental neuroscience discoveries. We now know that the brain is continually developing in the early years, “molding” to the influences of the environment. These influences affect the growth of the brain itself, the connections between areas of the brain and the genes switching on or off that affect how signals are processed. The more positive the stimuli from the environment, the more likely the results will be more favorable. Or the converse is also true. The less toxic stresses that babies and infants are exposed to, the more likely a more positive outcome will occur.
While not every family has equal opportunities based of their social circumstances, as a society we have an obligation to maximize the chances for all of our children.
One of the most dramatic ways to maximize these chances is to make sure that the 30 million-word gap is lessened. Dr. Dana Suskind is leading the Thirty Million Words Initiative (www.tmw.org) to provide further evidence of the achievement gap that occurs when children that start behind tend to stay behind. She notes that children who hear more words tend to be better prepared when they entered school and were stronger readers. Her work is dedicated to closing the achievement gap.
So what can we do now? Let me suggest—Talk. Read. Sing. Repeat.
- Talk—We should always be talking with our kids, and using more than simple sentences. Instead of something like “Look at the red ball,” say “look at the red ball on the table next to the glass of milk.” Children can process so much information and need the stimulation.
- Read—Children’s books offer the ideal opportunity to engage children using pictures and words. This combination helps process so much information that will benefit both the child and the parent. Reading is a fantastic joint exercise.
- Sing—Words come alive in song and deserve the additional dimension of enthusiasm that comes with music. Children can really interact with words that are set to music. Music is the added element that is crucial to language development.
- Repeat—Keep doing it, over and over.
To enhance the outcomes for our children by improving communication, parents and caregivers for babies, infants, toddlers and young children should—Talk. Read. Sing. Then do it some more—Repeat.