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Why Your State Should Promote Language Nutrition

Talk With Me Baby is a population-based initiative designed to ensure that every child, starting from birth, receives the essential “language nutrition.” Just as healthy food nourishes a growing baby’s body, language nutrition nourishes a baby’s brain. Both the quantity and quality of nourishing language are critical to healthy brain development. Providing children with abundant language nutrition, starting at birth, ensures a strong foundation for social-emotional and cognitive development and language and literacy ability and places babies on a pathway toward third grade reading proficiency, high school graduation, and lifelong success.

Why is TWMB Needed: Research on Language Nutrition and Early Brain Development

Research demonstrates that early exposure to language has a strong effect on vocabulary development by age 3, which is predictive of reading proficiency by the end of third grade. Reading proficiency and comprehension is especially important as children enter fourth grade, when they are expected to read texts and other classroom materials to learn. Currently, 65 percent of children nationwide are not achieving this critical milestone and, as a result, have a four times greater likelihood of dropping out of high school than proficient readers.

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Children of low-income parents hear an average of 11 million words by age three, 32 million fewer than their peers in higher-income families, making this a crucial population of focus for the initiative. TWMB promotes increased opportunities for all children and builds on recent advances in neuroscience and research on the effects of the “word gap,” framing its efforts on closing the “opportunity gap” by increasing language nutrition and opportunities for all infants. This frame has been successful in engaging many “unusual suspects” in a social justice conversation that holds the potential of dramatically improving the lives of children in low-income families.

How Can TWMB Help Your State Improve Child Outcomes: Leveraging systems to reach infants and families at the population level

Research on the importance of early language exposure on brain development has been in circulation for decades and a number of programs have been launched to encourage families, especially low-income families, to engage in conversation with their infants. Many of these efforts have involved high-cost programs that are difficult to sustain or scale.

In contrast, TWMB is not a program, but is a scalable, sustainable approach designed to “reach the people who reach the people.” TWMB integrates language nutrition coaching into the scope of work of large-scale workforces and groups that interact with new and expectant parents. After examining data to identify the workforces and groups that reach the greatest percentage of new and expectant parents, TWMB developed a set of tools to engage those workforces in this approach and prioritized the workforces by the extent of their reach into and engagement with the focus population.

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TWMB has developed a language nutrition curriculum and training materials for maternal/child health providers, a trusted workforce that reaches more than 99 percent of all new and expectant parents. Beginning in the third trimester of pregnancy and continuing through the baby’s first year of life, there are approximately 14 natural touch points between nurses and the parents and child. While the receipt of preventive health care varies by age, health insurance status, and race/ethnicity, nearly 90 percent of children, from birth through age 5, received at least one preventive care visit in the previous year. During these check-ups and the time spent in the hospital after delivery, TWMB-trained nurses transfer language nutrition capacity to parents and caregivers, preparing them to engage conversationally with their infants, starting at birth. With such a significant percentage of new and expectant parents interacting with nurses, nurses represent the most strategic workforce for a population-based approach like TWMB.

 

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TWMB has developed a language nutrition curriculum and training materials for maternal/child health providers, a trusted workforce that reaches more than 99 percent of all new and expectant parents. Beginning in the third trimester of pregnancy and continuing through the baby’s first year of life, there are approximately 14 natural touch points between nurses and the parents and child. While the receipt of preventive health care varies by age, health insurance status, and race/ethnicity, nearly 90 percent of children, from birth through age 5, received at least one preventive care visit in the previous year. During these check-ups and the time spent in the hospital after delivery, TWMB-trained nurses transfer language nutrition capacity to parents and caregivers, preparing them to engage conversationally with their infants, starting at birth. With such a significant percentage of new and expectant parents interacting with nurses, nurses represent the most strategic workforce for a population-based approach like TWMB.

 

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TWMB has developed training materials designed to engage child welfare case workers and to be incorporated into states’ foster parent training programs. These materials will prepare the case workers to integrate language nutrition messaging and coaching into their interactions with biological parents and foster parents. In addition, foster parents will understand the importance of delivering language nutrition to the infants in their care and will be encouraged to act as language nutrition coaches for the biological parents of the children in their care. Infants are the largest and fastest growing population group in the child welfare system with the majority of infants entering the system within the first three months of life. Infants in foster care are at risk of attachment disruption, but adult-child language-rich interactions promote parent-child attachment. By engaging the case workers and foster parents who care for these children, TWMB is able to reach a vulnerable and growing population of infants

 

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TWMB and its partners have developed professional development materials designed to ensure that early learning educators who care for infants and toddlers are delivering language nutrition to the children in their care and modeling language-rich adult-child interactions for parents during child pick-up and drop-off. Nationwide, nearly 16 percent of infants under the age of one and 25 percent of one-year olds are enrolled in child care/early learning programs. The caregivers for these children have the opportunity to interact with their parents on a regular basis. They also have a unique opportunity to deliver language nutrition and build strong attachments with the children in their care, making them a strategic focus for TWMB.

 

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TWMB has developed materials to be incorporated into the medical school training programs for future pediatricians and is exploring the possibility of developing continuing education courses for physicians who are already in the workforce. There are approximately nine natural touchpoints between pediatricians and new and expectant parents from their first prenatal visit through the baby’s first birthday. While the receipt of preventive health care varies by age, health insurance status, and race/ethnicity, nearly 90 percent of children, from birth through age 5, received at least one preventive care visit in the previous year. With such extensive a significant percentage of young children and their families accessing preventive care physicians have the opportunity to reinforce the messages and coaching being delivered by the nurses and medical assistants in their offices. Programs such as Reach Out and Read have been engaging pediatricians, nurses and other pediatric medical professionals with more than 5,500 program sites nationwide.

 

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The Structure of TWMB in Georgia

TWMB is the result of a public-private collaborative in Georgia that formed in 2013.

The six lead partners include the Georgia Department of Public Health, which has recognized language acquisition as a public health imperative; the Georgia Department of Education; the Atlanta Speech School’s Rollins Center for Language and Literacy; Emory University’s School of Nursing and Department of Pediatrics; the Marcus Autism Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; and the Get Georgia Reading Campaign – Georgia’s Campaign for Grade Level Reading. 

Each of these partners was already engaged in the space of early brain development and language and literacy development and had been partnering with each other in various ways before they formed the TWMB collaborative in 2013. The collaborative enables them to leverage each other’s expertise and influence to design and implement a scalable and sustainable strategy for ensuring that all children in Georgia – and beyond – receive abundant language nutrition.

Talk With Me Baby is made possible by a grant from the United Way of Atlanta and is a collaborative effort among organizations.