Back-and-forth exchanges boost children’s brain response to language

Back-and-forth exchanges boost children’s brain response to language

Study finds engaging young children in conversation is more important for brain development than “dumping words” on them.

A landmark 1995 study found that children from higher-income families hear about 30 million more words during their first three years of life than children from lower-income families. This “30-million-word gap” correlates with significant differences in tests of vocabulary, language development, and reading comprehension.

MIT cognitive scientists have now found that conversation between an adult and a child appears to change the child’s brain, and that this back-and-forth conversation is actually more critical to language development than the word gap. In a study of children between the ages of 4 and 6, they found that differences in the number of “conversational turns” accounted for a large portion of the differences in brain physiology and language skills that they found among the children. This finding applied to children regardless of parental income or education.

The findings suggest that parents can have considerable influence over their children’s language and brain development by simply engaging them in conversation, the researchers say.

“The important thing is not just to talk to your child, but to talk with your child. It’s not just about dumping language into your child’s brain, but to actually carry on a conversation with them,” says Rachel Romeo, a graduate student at Harvard and MIT and the lead author of the paper, which appears in the Feb. 14 online edition of Psychological Science.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers identified differences in the brain’s response to language that correlated with the number of conversational turns. In children who experienced more conversation, Broca’s area, a part of the brain involved in speech production and language processing, was much more active while they listened to stories. This brain activation then predicted children’s scores on language assessments, fully explaining the income-related differences in children’s language skills.

“The really novel thing about our paper is that it provides the first evidence that family conversation at home is associated with brain development in children. It’s almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain,” says John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study.

Beyond the word gap

Before this study, little was known about how the “word gap” might translate into differences in the brain. The MIT team set out to find these differences by comparing the brain scans of children from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

As part of the study, the researchers used a system called Language Environment Analysis (LENA) to record every word spoken or heard by each child. Parents who agreed to have their children participate in the study were told to have their children wear the recorder for two days, from the time they woke up until they went to bed.

The recordings were then analyzed by a computer program that yielded three measurements: the number of words spoken by the child, the number of words spoken to the child, and the number of times that the child and an adult took a “conversational turn” — a back-and-forth exchange initiated by either one.

The researchers found that the number of conversational turns correlated strongly with the children’s scores on standardized tests of language skill, including vocabulary, grammar, and verbal reasoning. The number of conversational turns also correlated with more activity in Broca’s area, when the children listened to stories while inside an fMRI scanner.

These correlations were much stronger than those between the number of words heard and language scores, and between the number of words heard and activity in Broca’s area.

This result aligns with other recent findings, Romeo says, “but there’s still a popular notion that there’s this 30-million-word gap, and we need to dump words into these kids — just talk to them all day long, or maybe sit them in front of a TV that will talk to them. However, the brain data show that it really seems to be this interactive dialogue that is more strongly related to neural processing.”

The researchers believe interactive conversation gives children more of an opportunity to practice their communication skills, including the ability to understand what another person is trying to say and to respond in an appropriate way.

While children from higher-income families were exposed to more language on average, children from lower-income families who experienced a high number of conversational turns had language skills and Broca’s area brain activity similar to those of children who came from higher-income families.

“In our analysis, the conversational turn-taking seems like the thing that makes a difference, regardless of socioeconomic status. Such turn-taking occurs more often in families from a higher socioeconomic status, but children coming from families with lesser income or parental education showed the same benefits from conversational turn-taking,” Gabrieli says.

Taking action

The researchers hope their findings will encourage parents to engage their young children in more conversation. Although this study was done in children age 4 to 6, this type of turn-taking can also be done with much younger children, by making sounds back and forth or making faces, the researchers say.

“One of the things we’re excited about is that it feels like a relatively actionable thing because it’s specific. That doesn’t mean it’s easy for less educated families, under greater economic stress, to have more conversation with their child. But at the same time, it’s a targeted, specific action, and there may be ways to promote or encourage that,” Gabrieli says.

Roberta Golinkoff, a professor of education at the University of Delaware School of Education, says the new study presents an important finding that adds to the evidence that it’s not just the number of words children hear that is significant for their language development.

“You can talk to a child until you’re blue in the face, but if you’re not engaging with the child and having a conversational duet about what the child is interested in, you’re not going to give the child the language processing skills that they need,” says Golinkoff, who was not involved in the study. “If you can get the child to participate, not just listen, that will allow the child to have a better language outcome.”

The MIT researchers now hope to study the effects of possible interventions that incorporate more conversation into young children’s lives. These could include technological assistance, such as computer programs that can converse or electronic reminders to parents to engage their children in conversation.

The research was funded by the Walton Family Foundation, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a Harvard Mind Brain Behavior Grant, and a gift from David Pun Chan.

Original article post can be found here.

What is a True Apology

An Apology: Turning Wrongs into Rights

This story comes from one of our 3-year-old classrooms. What a great message and learning experience from our young people!

Here is the scene:

*Friends are playing on the playground with the Pre-School classes when a child is walking around the playground by themselves and walks up to the teacher.*

Child: Teacher, no one wants to be my friend today.

Ms. Claire: Oh, I’m sure someone would love to be your friend! Have you asked anyone if they want to play with you?

Child: I asked them but they said they didn’t want to play with me.

Ms. Claire: Did you ask them WHY they didn’t want to play with you?

Child: (Pauses for a moment of thought) I did not! I’ll be right back!

*a few moments later*

Child: Teacher, I went to ask them and they said they didn’t want to play with me because I’ve been hitting them and not a very nice friend today.

Ms. Claire: Ohhh… Well, I don’t really like it when my friends hit me either. Do you remember there are two parts to sorry? You have to SAY you’re sorry then you have to SHOW you’re sorry. Maybe you can ask them how you can fix it.

Child: Okay! (The child ran off to play with other friends from another class but you could tell they were still thinking about how to say sorry)

*15 minutes later*

We had come back into the classroom to work on journals and get ready for lunch. The child then went to go play with friends on the carpet area and read books. I could see that they were sitting with a group of friends when they took it upon themselves to apologize to them and tell them all that they were sorry they had not been a nice friend today. They read books and laughed together. They had turned their wrongs into rights and are beginning to understand what a true apology looks like.

The following is an excerpt from Zero to Three

 What is a True Apology?

I think apologies are important. But not the kind of apologies that we, as parents, are often tempted to use. The “I’m sorry…but” apologies: “I’m sorry, but it’s time for nap” or “I’m sorry that you threw the train at Thomas, now you have to take a break.” These apologies are not real. They are limit softeners–our parental code for, “Something really crappy is coming up now…I hope you don’t freak out.”

True apologies are important, even with babies and toddlers. Think of all the times that toddlers hear adults tell them, “You hit your brother/took your friend’s stuffed animal/dropped Mommy’s wedding ring down the drain (yes, this happened). NOW SAY YOU’RE SORRY.” How do we know how to say we’re sorry? How do we know how to forgive? We learn by experiencing it.

A true apology is one that clearly states what the adult did wrong in simple terms that a child can understand, like “I yelled at you and I shouldn’t; I’m sorry for that.” (And no excuses—for example, this is not a true apology: “I’m sorry for yelling, but your tantrum got me really upset.”)

What Do True Apologies Teach Young Children

True apologies between adults and children do three important things: First, they show children how to recognize the difference between right and wrong (this is called a conscience, and comes in handy.)

Second, true apologies help adults build an authentic relationship with their children—one in which both people will sometimes make mistakes. Repairing mistakes (apologizing) can and often does take a relationship to a new level.

Finally, offering a true apology teaches children—even toddlers—how to take responsibility for their actions and how to forgive. There is power, love, and generosity in forgiveness. It is a big deal.

By Rebecca Parlakian

How to ‘bridge minds’ with a child to stimulate brain development

How to ‘bridge minds’ with a child to stimulate brain development

Posted on August 3, 2018 by Early Childhood Australia

This article, written by Nina Sokolovic, Jennifer Jenkins and Michal Perlman, first appeared on The Conversation, on February 15, 2018.

A three-year-old boy struggles to thread beads on a string while his older sister watches. She could ignore him or take over the task to get it done quickly. But if she observes him closely, and realizes that he is struggling to hold the string steady, she could offer to hold it for him and praise him for any beads he threads.

This approach—which includes awareness of the child’s cues, clear communication, back-and-forth reciprocity and guidance that adapts to where the child is at—would be an example of the sister ‘bridging minds’ with her brother.

Our research team at the University of Toronto has spent the past five years working to measure and teach the specific behaviours that promote children’s language and cognitive skills. We have defined supportive interactions as those in which two minds are ‘bridged.’ We also call this ‘displaying cognitive sensitivity.’

Our research shows that children who grow up with siblings who display this type of sensitivity often tend to have stronger language skills and are better able to see things from another’s perspective.

It also shows that when parents and teachers adapt their own behaviours based on what a child is thinking, they help that child to learn and grow.

Serve and return interactions

Bridging minds describes what it means to step outside of one’s own thoughts, and to recognize and be responsive to what is going on in someone else’s head.

Specifically, it’s the ability to determine what the other person knows, what interests them in a given moment, what they are capable of doing, what types of instructions or support they need, and then to respond accordingly.

This concept moves beyond early work on the topic of sensitivity, which focused on the need to be responsive to how children are feeling in order to support children’s emotional development.

Instead, it draws on more recent research from the field of neuroscience, which has highlighted that responsive serve-and-return interactions are just as critical for stimulating children’s early brain development. Indeed, building bridges is about building brain connections.

Applying the science

The breakthrough of our research is that we have come up with a reliable and efficient way to measure the extent of ‘mind-bridging’ occurring in such interactions.

This involves trained researchers using simple checklists to evaluate interactions of children with siblingsparents or early-childhood educators—based on live or video-recorded interactions of pairs or groups.

The whole process can be completed in less than 10 minutes.

Our next challenge is supporting people to use the ‘bridging minds’ approach more often in their interactions with children. Many parents and professionals know that ‘early experiences matter’ and ‘zero-to-three is a vital period for human development,’ but still need more practical tools to make the most of these early years.

Our research team is currently conducting intervention studies with home-visiting nurses in Brazil and, in collaboration with colleagues at George Brown College, with early childhood educators in the Toronto area.

The goal of these studies is to help these populations build more bridges with children on a daily basis.

Maximize brain nutrition

While waiting for the results of these studies, our research team has some suggestions for how to ensure children get the most ‘brain nutrition’ out of every interaction.

In moments of play or daily routines, parents, guardians and early learning professionals can consider:

What is this child looking at and thinking about? How can I engage them, following their lead?

Start a conversation by commenting on what they’re doing. Then, try adding on to what they are already thinking about to extend their learning.

For a child playing with blocks: ‘What are you building there? A tower! Oh that’s a big tower. It’s already one, two, three bricks high with three different colours. Let’s see what you will do next with the tower?’

Let children try things themselves

It’s helpful for parents and early learning professions to wonder: What is this child capable of doing? How can I help him/her learn and succeed based on their interests?

Offer a hand to help them expand what they can do by themselves. And keep the interactions going back and forth without taking over.

Letting children try things themselves and providing positive feedback can reap real benefits.

For a child who is having trouble scooping water with a bucket: ‘Oh dear. It’s hard to get the water, isn’t it? I hold the bucket with both hands to make it easier for me. Want to try? Great job, you did it!’

Every interaction is an opportunity to expand what a child knows. To help build brains, parents, educators, siblings, grandparents and other caregivers can all try ‘bridging minds.’

About the authors

Nina Sokolovic is a Doctoral Student in Developmental Psychology and Education, University of Toronto.

Jennifer Jenkins is the Atkinson Chair of Early Child Development and Education and University of Toronto and runs the Kids, Families and Places research study. She  teaches in the Collaborative PhD Program in Human Development, the School and Clinical Child and the Developmental Psychology and Education graduate programs at the University of Toronto.

Michal Perlman is Associate Professor at the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Downtime: Necessary for Children’s Mental Health and 21st-Century Skills

Downtime: Necessary for Children’s Mental Health and 21st-Century Skills

Rae Pica, Child Development Expert

Think back to your own childhood and the amount of downtime you had. Do you remember lying on your back outdoors, looking for creatures in the clouds? Playing outside with friends and having the freedom to choose whatever game you wanted to play, or whatever drama you wanted to enact? Being alone in your bedroom, curled up on the bed and reading a beloved book, or quietly acting out a story with your dolls, action figures, or stuffed animals?

I remember all of those things. But today’s children won’t have such memories, because they aren’t being granted the same opportunities. Instead, too many of today’s children are leading overscheduled lives, with no time just to be.

Intuitively, we know that everyone, including children, needs downtime. No one, even the most energetic among us, cares to rush through their waking hours, day after day after day. We know how stressful it is to be overscheduled, over-pressured, and overwhelmed. We’ve witnessed the toll it takes on adults (on us!) – and it’s horrible to imagine children feeling this way.

Despite this, many parents are afraid to let their children simply “do nothing.” They worry that if they don’t keep their children busy, busy, busy, they will have résumés that look sparse in comparison to their counterparts.

Then, of course, we have policy makers like the Maryland school chief who declared it was time to do away with the “baby stuff,” referring to naptime in preschool. Similar attitudes throughout the country have resulted in preschoolers and kindergartners being forced to power through their exhaustion in order to spend more time on “academics.”

Unfortunately, such policies fail to take into consideration the research (again!). Dr. James Maas, an international authority on sleep and performance, has said that, among other things, being overtired leads to:

  • Reduced ability to concentrate
  • Reduced ability to remember
  • Reduced ability to be creative
  • Reduced ability to make critical decisions

None of that contributes to optimal performance in a classroom! Moreover, Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Sleepless in America, contends that “a very significant percentage of challenging behaviors are actually the result of tired kids.”

Yes, we want to help prepare our children for their future. But living an overscheduled, over programmed life isn’t the way to do it. That kind of childhood is laden with stress. And, according to Dr. Peter Gray,

Rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years. Today, by at least some estimates, five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago.

He attributes these mental health issues to a decline in free play – which, of course, is only possible when children have downtime.

We have to keep in mind, though, that even if mental health issues don’t arise, a lack of downtime means that a child will never learn to entertain herself. Will never be able to live inside her own head. To deal with solitude or quiet time — essential for problem solving and restoration. She may feel she absolutely has to be in the company of others, even panicking at the idea of keeping herself amused.

Imagination and creativity – ideas – arise from having time to think, to ponder and reflect, or just let the mind go. A child with downtime will engage in authentic play (self-chosen, self-directed, and without extrinsic goals) – alone and with others. Because play employs divergent thinking (a much-needed 21st-century skill), his problem-solving abilities will grow. If he has the time to carry out his plans and bring them to a conclusion, he’ll experience the satisfaction that comes from thinking things through and working them out. A child without such time develops only the ability to do what he’s told, when he’s told to do it. And that child isn’t likely to become an adult with initiative.

If we want children to grow up to be resourceful, they will have to start practicing now. You may no longer be allowed to include naptime as part of the day, but you can ensure that the children get some time to rest. You can also ensure that they get as much unstructured time as possible.

On the surface, downtime may look like wasted time. But, below the surface, there’s a whole lot going on. And it’s below the surface that truly counts!

Tips for a Great Drop-Off

Drop-Off Tips

Young children need support as they say goodbye to parents and family and start their day at child care. Use these tips to help your child transition into the classroom.

  1. Ask about how your program makes children feel comfortable as they start.
    Many programs have a system in place for sharing about the beginning of school and gathering information from families before the start of the school year. Ask for the name of your child’s primary caregiver and how you can share information about your family, routines, caregiving choices and culture.
  2. Review the daily schedule with your child.
    Tell your child what will happen next using their posted daily schedule: Pictures of the day’s routine help your child “tell time.” If your child’s classroom does not have a daily schedule posted, ask if the teacher could share one. You could even offer to make one.
  3. Help your child get to know the primary caregiver first before you leave:
    Taking the time to introduce your child to the new caregiver and join the caregiver and your child in play will pave the way to a strong relationship between them.
  4. Establish a predictable goodbye routine:
    This will let your child know what will happen next, making it easier to cope with the transition. Wave from the window, watch the pet fish, play with a favorite toy, share a hug, read a book, or sing a goodbye song.
  5. Give your child tools to use when missing family:
    A special lovey, a photo of your family, or an item like your watch can help your child cope. If the lovey can’t be shared with other children, ask your child’s teacher if it can stay in the cubby and come out when your child is sad.
  6. Share at least a few words of your home language with your child’s teacher:
    Hearing that “mama or papa will come back” in your child’s home language makes a bridge between home and school, and helps your child feel understood. A word list that contains phrases that your family or your child uses for eating, diapering, sleeping and family members can help a great deal.
  7. Share your child’s favorite things to do with the teachers:
    When your child is ready to play, the teacher can point out similar things in the classroom.
  8. Make homemade books:
    Books that you make for your child about the daily routine including the transition from home to school can promote coping for children who need to rehearse the day’s plan to cope.
  9. Talk about feelings:
    It’s ok to cry and miss a parent. It’s ok to feel angry at parents for leaving. Don’t be offended if your child is upset at you – strong feelings are normal. Don’t shame your child for feeling sad and scared; no one feels that way on purpose.
  10. Create a reunion ritual, checking in with your child’s teacher about the day:
    Find out what went well and stress those successes to your child. “I heard that you loved playing with the balls!” Talk with your child about the day as you leave.
  11. Be timely:
    Returning at the same time each day prevents your child from worrying if you have forgotten him or her when you are late. This makes drop off the next day easier; your child trusts you will not leave him or her at school forever.

By: Julia Luckenbill, NAEYC website

National Association for the Education of Young Children

Water Play and Your Child’s Growing Brain

Article by: Susan Brown, Assistant Director and Parent Educator, Commonwealth Parenting

In the early months and years of life children learn by getting their hands on and in all kinds of things. This early sensory motor stage is a wonderful time to introduce your child to science and math concepts through activities such as floor time, finger paint and water play.

Neurologists know that when children engage in sensory play they are stimulating neurons that fire, causing synapses to connect. I like to think of children’s fingers as if there are little brains on the tip of each finger. When these little brains get stimulated through play, neurons begin to fire. This firing of neurons excites the brain, causing it to grow bigger, stronger and more facile, setting the brain up for higher levels of cognition. One of the simplest ways to provide sensory play is through water activities.

Water play is not only incredibly fun for a small child, but it also enhances a child’s physical, cognitive, and social skills. When children pour water, they are improving their physical dexterity and hand-eye coordination. They extend their vocabulary as they learn new words and talk about what they are experiencing. They explore elements of science such as buoyancy and volume as they experience why some objects sink and others float. Children begin to experiment with math concepts such as greater than and less than, empty and full, and even fractions as they explore things that may be half full or quarter full.

Water play is easy to do at home. Just gather up a variety of plastic cups, toy boats and fish, a funnel, a turkey baster, some clean paint brushes – and watch how your child has fun pouring, playing and painting with water. You can also set up a water play area in your kitchen or backyard. Just pour two inches of water into a shallow plastic tub and add things that measure, float and sink. Having a little food coloring handy, to experiment with what happens when you add it to the water, is always fun. When children are playing with water it is always important for there to be constant adult supervision.

This simple and pleasurable play sets the foundation by preparing the brain for more complex concepts in math and science. Make water play an important part of your child’s day.

Meet our Teaching Staff: Mabry Agnew

Hello, I am Mabry Agnew. You may remember me from the Employee Spotlight on Brendan Agnew. I am the lead teacher of the Adventurers classroom, which I helped to open in early 2014. This class has been one of the big adventures in my life ever since. About a year ago, my biggest adventure arrived on the scene: my daughter Marian Agnew, who is currently next door in the Wanderers classroom.

Family is the core of my life, but I have several families. There’s my immediate family Brendan, Marian, and my adoptive sister Ms. Robin (from the Troopers classroom). We all live together in a little brick house with two cats and a greyhound. There’s my extended family (Dad, little brother Michael, the best in-laws anyone ever had, an assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins). There’s my Middle Earth family, my AOA family (more on that later), plus a few other friends who absolutely count as family. All of these people helped me to weather the loss of my mom four years ago, which is still a very fresh heartache.

Outside of my working hours, I am always busy. I read (a lot), write (less than I would like), and cook (as creatively as I have time and energy for). The other hobby about which I am passionate is performance. Both my parents were/are theater people, and I was infected with a dramatic streak from birth. These days I fulfill this passion through working with the Arthurian Order of Avalon, a local educational and performance group. This past year, I directed the chessboard, but most years I perform on it or help to write the script.

My undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Arts in the College of Letters at Wesleyan University (with a semester at the University of Edinburgh). I have a Master of Library and Information Studies from the University of Oklahoma. Life led me in a different direction, however, and after a year working in Middle Earth’s infant room, I sought out more education in child development, completing my Certificate of Mastery online through OSU-OKC.

My perspective on child development is best summed up by the Donald Barthelme quote, “The distinction between children and adults, which is probably useful for some purposes, is at bottom of a specious one, I feel. There are only individual egos, crazy for love.” Working with infants and young toddlers, the most important thing I can do to help children learn and grow is to give them that love.

As a teacher, my goal is that the children who move on from my room succeed. I am helping to build the foundations they need to do amazing things. (I absolutely believe that a child I have taught will one day build a rocket to Mars. I won’t know which of them until they do it.) As a parent, I hope to raise a child who is braver than I am. Finally, as an individual, I would really like to write a best-selling book and never have to worry about money again.

Meet our Teaching Staff – Claire Malone

My name is Claire Malone. I’m the lead teacher in the Detectives Pre-Kindergarten (4-5 year old) classroom soon to be the teacher of the Preschool (3-4 year old) classroom and have been working at Middle Earth since January 2012.

My family consist of my husband, David, myself, and our two furry pups, Abby and Zoey. We met while attending Norman North High School in 2007, happen to take a debate class together and have been best friends ever since. We recently got married in June of 2018 and life hasn’t slowed down since!

I love to spend time outside, camping, swimming, walking my dogs, thrift store shopping and live music. I also really enjoy being cozy at home, watching movies, playing board games, hanging out with friends and just spending time with the ones I love the most.

Within the community, I usually find myself enjoying local festivals that explore music and the arts. I have begun to explore local political activism and can’t wait to see where that leads me.

After completing high school, I took a year off and traveled the United States with my husband, meeting new people and learning a lot about myself. Once we came back, I got a job working with children and got accepted to the University of Oklahoma. After a few years, I took a break from school and began to work full time at Middle Earth as the Explorers Preschool teacher. Over the years, I became the Pre-Kindergarten teacher and can’t wait to see where my next journey leads me. I’m currently finishing up my Certificate of Mastery and will continue to pursue my education in the future.

I love that Middle Earth helps individuals thrive with what makes them unique in the world. We like to engage in activities weekly that help them learn life skills along their journey here with us. I like to give the children a safe space that they can take pride in and call their own. I teach from a place of love and respect and I truly believe that if you treat children as equals they will rise to the occasion and impress the heck out of yah!

One day to hope to teach other teachers how to teach from from their heart and with kindness in their classrooms. My goal as a teacher is to teach children to ask questions, get messy and know that the only thing holding them back is their own imagination.