Trying to Close a Word Gap, Word by Word

Trying to Close a Word Gap, Word by Word

The NY Times article, written by Motoko Rich on March 25, 2014, spotlights, once again, the importance of talking to babies and toddlers. By way of the LENA device, a tiny recording device worn by a child that distinguishes between words overheard from TV or other electronics and live human conversation, staff from home visiting programs can help parents understand the importance of not only the number of words spoken to babies and toddlers but also the kinds of words spoken.  Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago who founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative, which oversees home visiting programs and public information campaigns, tells us “every parent can talk,” meaning talking to children does not depend on family background, race, socio-economic status or education.  But, Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, the nonprofit group that promotes healthy development in the early years, reminds us “It’s not just saying, ‘You need to say this amount of words to your kids every day and then they’re going to be smart and successful.’ ”  She adds, “We don’t want parents talking at babies.  We want parents talking with babies.”

Parents and caregivers need to remember that although “talk is cheap” (which is a great thing when it comes to all parents and caregivers being able to give it to the babies and toddlers in their lives), it’s not going to be easy!  Conor P. Williams wrote a piece on February 10, 2014 for EdCentral titled “New Research:  Why Infants and Toddlers are so Exhausting.”  In his piece, Williams paints the picture of infants and toddlers as “incessantly in motion” beings.  He tells us “Developmentally speaking, infants and toddlers are moving fast. Which is exhausting for parents.”  For the non-scientist parents in the crowds, Williams kindly translates some research from Brown University and King’s College London, published in the Journal of Neuroscience.  This is what he has to say:

As very young children babble and stumble many thousands of times through their early years, they’re steadily building myelinated connections between various sections of their brains. By three years old, kids have twice as many neural pathways as adults. As they grow, they “prune” these down to think and act more efficiently—they develop routines that codify into habits and myelinated connections in the brain. 


This is where the new research comes in. The study used MRIs to track the children’s myelin development, with an eye to seeing if specific patterns of myelination corresponded with language abilities. Much of their findings confirmed what many other studies have shown: the early years are enormously important for children’s linguistic development. This is the period when stimuli from the outside environment have the greatest impact—children who hear more words in these years obtain verbal advantages that last a lifetime.


But the study also found that myelination patterns stabilized around age four, suggesting a critical developmental point when children’s brains start to become less pliable. As they age beyond then, their brains become more like adults—and their pace of development slows down. Good news for tired parents like me, as well as a useful reminder to policymakers considering when they ought to invest limited resources for improving children’s linguistic abilities.

Then Williams goes on to report a story his own father told him after Williams had his first child about a a publicity stunt involving legendary multisport athlete Jim Thorpe. He writes:

Apparently, he agreed to spend an entire day mimicking a toddler’s every movement. Thorpe, the century’s greatest athlete, the Olympic champion, bowed out after only a few hours. This research suggests that, had he squared off against a six-year-old, he might have had a chance. But against a toddler (read: “developmental powerhouse”), he was doomed


Williams makes two very powerful points.  First, he tells us that by age 4, the age at which children will start preschool in many states which are funding and fighting for Pre-K programs for all children, children’s brains are already becoming less plastic.  The brain of a 4-year old is already “hardening,” in terms of becoming less able to develop new pathways from learning and stimulation.  Stated another way, the time for stimulating brains and encouraging brain development is prior to age 4. Second, Williams informs us (for those of us who did not already know!), babies and toddlers are exhausting. It’s difficult for parents and caregivers to “give it their all” with infants and toddlers because it’s hard for us to keep up the pace with them.  

Because of this, we need to understand that families with infants and toddlers need special care and attention.  Having an infant or toddler, especially if one if poor, homeless, jobless, unable to make ends meet, or any other version of “stressed,” can push anyone to the breaking point.  Families and caregivers of young children need support so that they can provide the best learning experiences and moments of brain development possible to the infants and toddlers in their lives.  Of course, this is going to cost money.  However, as economists, such as James Heckman, have found, funding programs that support families with young children pay off in spades.  Investing in children and families from the start, for a few years until the child is off and running (literally and figuratively), directly decreases the costs for special education, resource teachers, high school dropout rates, teen pregnancies, welfare recipients, and housing prison inmates.

For those of us with infants and toddlers in our lives, either because we have them around or we work with them, let’s get talking while “running” along side those little ones.  There is so much to be gained from doing so!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s