Talk to Your Baby

Baby:talkMore and more programs for four year olds are being started and they’re helpful, but not as helpful as talking to children from birth. Here are some guidelines to be aware of when interacting with small children:

• stay positive, not critical

• stay focused on the kid’s needs

• set aside enough time for your kids

• avoid distractions

• avoid the urge to control your children

Here’s an example of how talking to kids a lot and helping them feel comfortable expressing themselves and thinking for themselves can pay off: When Jules was about ten years old, his mother and I jabbered away riding in her car. He was in the back seat. After 20 minutes Jules leaned forward and said in a strong voice, “I think you should realize there are three of us in the car and include me in the conversation.”

Studies say sending children to pre-school at age four is too late if they have educational shortcomings at home. Children from professional families, like Jules, often hear 30,000 more words than those from a poorer background. By age 9, this has a large affect on academic success.

At 18 months children from disadvantaged families are several months behind more favored children, according to Anne Fernald of Stanford University. She measures how quickly toddlers process language “by sitting them on their mothers’ laps and showing them two images: a dog and a ball, say. A recorded voice tells the toddler to look at the ball while a camera records his reaction. This lets Dr. Fernald note the moment the child’s gaze begins shifting towards the correct image. At 18 months, toddlers from better-off backgrounds can identify the correct object in 750 milliseconds—200 milliseconds faster than those from poorer families.”

By the time children are two, there’s a six-month disparity in the language-processing skills and vocabulary of the two groups. “Toddlers learn new words from their context, so the faster a child understands the words he already knows, the easier it is for him to attend to those he does not.

“It is also now clear from Dr. Fernald’s work that words spoken directly to a child, rather than those simply heard in the home, build vocabulary. Plonking children in front of the television does not have the same effect.“

Babies are born with about 100 billion neurons, and connections between them form at an exponentially rising rate in the first years of life. “By the time a child is three,” according to Kimberly Noble of Columbia University, “there will be about 1,000 trillion connections in his brain, and that child’s experiences continuously determine which are strengthened and which pruned. This process, gradual and more-or-less irreversible, shapes the trajectory of the child’s life.”

Dr. Dana Suskind in Chicago found using a new device that works like a pedometer and keeps track of words, combined with home visits to give parents advice, produces a 32% increase in the words a child hears per hour after six weeks. She encourages parents to make their words more enriching. “For example, instead of telling a child, ‘Put your shoes on,’ one might say instead, ‘It is time to go out. What do we have to do?’” The quotes above were from the Economist article of 2-22-14, In the beginning was the word.

In the New York Times article of 4-6-14, The Time to Start Education Isn’t Prekindergarten, It’s Birth, Ginia Bellafante writes, “We should concentrate our energies on helping the most vulnerable parents and children beginning at, or before, birth. Programs for 4-year-old and even 3-year-olds, come too late.

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