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COVID Babies Are Talking Less

24 May 2022 by Teachstone

New research from the nonprofit, LENA, suggests that babies born since the pandemic started are talking less and experiencing fewer conversational turns than babies born before COVID. This supports other studies that show that COVID-era babies are experiencing developmental delays and may impact their school readiness as as they get older. So, what does this mean for educators? And, how can we support these infants and toddlers with their language development? 

Today’s guests are Dr. Jill Gilkerson, Chief Research and Evaluation Officer at LENA, and Barb Lito, a GrowSmart Coordinator for the city of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Listen to the episode to hear what they have to say about these findings, what surprised them, and what parents and educators can do going forward.


Marnetta: Hello and welcome to Impacting the Classroom, the podcast that talks about big topics that have an even bigger impact in early education. I'm your host, Marnetta Larrimer.

I am joined today by two esteemed guests. You guys will not believe the conversation that we're going to have today. Our first guest is Dr. Jill Gilkerson, Chief Research and Evaluation Officer at LENA. Can you please introduce yourself for us?

Jill: Hi, thanks for having me. I am the Chief Research and Evaluation Officer at LENA. I have been at LENA for 17 years now, so since before we had any technology. My background is actually in linguistics, so I have expertise in early language acquisition, but at the foundation, I'm primarily responsible for managing a team of people who collect and analyze the data that's in our language corpus. I'm excited to be here and excited to talk a little bit more about the data.

Marnetta: I can't wait to dive into that either. We're also joined by Barb Lito, a GrowSmart Coordinator for the city of Virginia Beach, Virginia. She leads their early childhood education collaborative partnership. She's been in the field for over 30 years, and part of her work is about leading partnerships that support children and families across the community.

Lots of experience here and lots of things for us to talk about, so let's go ahead and jump into our first question. Welcome to the podcast.

First question, we're so excited that you guys joined us to talk about some of the cutting-edge research that LENA recently has put out. You recently released findings that babies who were born after the pandemic are talking less, have lower cognitive performance, and have slower growth in white matter. Can you tell us a little bit more about these findings?

Jill: Sure. In order to talk about the LENA data, I have to explain what the technology is real quick. LENA stands for Language Environment Analysis. We are a company that creates and distributes technology that helps parents and caregivers know how much they're interacting with the children and their carer and provides strategies for them to increase that talk because we know that it's so important for longitudinal trajectories, both brain development and long-term outcomes.

What LENA is is a recorder that children wear. It goes in the front pocket of their clothing. It's for children between 2 months and 48 months of age, so we're looking at young babies here. It records everything that they say for up to 16 hours, so we've got a day-long recording of their language activity and what's happening around them.

The audio is uploaded to a computer, and then it's processed using our algorithms. Our algorithms will parse every bit of that audio data and tell us who is speaking. Is it the child that's vocalizing, or is it an adult in the environment?

From that parsing or algorithm, we can know some important things about what the child is experiencing throughout the day. We can know how often the child is speaking or vocalizing—and that's a babble or a word—we can know how many adult words the child has heard throughout the day, and we can know most importantly how many back and forth interactions they have with adults.

If the child says something and an adult responds within five seconds, then that's what we call a conversational term. If the adult says something and the child responds within five, that's a conversational term.

We've been measuring conversational terms for many, many years, and we have released several publications. Other independent publications also come out showing that conversational terms are vastly more important for child development than just sheer adult word exposure. We take that very seriously.

Things were changing during COVID. We heard anecdotally from talking to people like Barb and others that children are different. Their experiences and development is different post-pandemic, so we thought, well, let's look at our data because we've been collecting audio data for many, many years. We know where children were with respect to terms and vocalizations before the pandemic and after.

What we did is we looked at baseline data and our LENA Start program. LENA Start is a parent program, so all of these recordings happen in the home. We looked at baseline recordings before they started that 10-week program, so before they had changed any of their interactive behavior.

The finding is actually very simple. When we compared children before, during, and after COVID, we found that they were vocalizing less frequently than their pre-pandemic peers, and they were interacting less frequently with adults.

These are all statistically significant findings. It is concerning because we know how important conversational turns are for early development. We wanted to get those findings out there so people can be thinking about it and taking action to really help support these families.

Marnetta: That's a lot. It's also very sad because like you said, we do know how important language development is in expanding cognitive ability but also later on in their journey of development, how it impacts their learning, socialization, and all of that. That was a lot.

Do you have any sense of what caused these delays? What prompted the study aside from you having people who were concerned? Were there concerns before then? What other things were happening that really prompted this to happen?

Jill: We all know that there were changes happening. We all lived through the pandemic, we know that our interactions were changing, and our social experiences were really being impacted. There was obviously a lot more isolation. There was a lot of stress going on, particularly in under-resourced communities—worrying about employment, worrying about food, everyone worrying about their children who aren't in school and not able to go. There are all kinds of stuff that is happening that would impact a person with respect to stress, depression, and just having the opportunities to engage more with all these other things going on. I don't think you can point to one thing.

For this research, we just wanted to put a spotlight on it to say, hey, this is what's happening. I'd love for other researchers to look into it, but I'm not out on the field. I'm more like studying spreadsheets and stuff. Barb, I think, may have some insight as well.

Marnetta: I love that you said that because I was so going to segue right into her and her experiences and what she's seen on the ground.

Barb: I think we all remember where we were in March when the pandemic started shutting down the world as we know it. A lot of employment schools and childcare had stopped. What we all thought would be this brief pause has ended up being an extended disruption in many of our services.

For families that had young children, we were meeting Start groups with three different groups when that moment hit. We paused service and thought that after a couple of weeks, we'll start back up again, but that's not what took place. We kept in contact with all of our families.

I have to tell you, everyone's experience was sudden, but they were all different. Some families were able to continue to work, but they were doing it virtually and still being the caregiver for their child. I still sit here, and I don't know how that happens because you can't be present for your work and then have to be there for your child. I think that that's had effects.

We had other families who may have lost employment. They didn't have that support, and they were isolated with their child. Everyone lost contact with their support network. People were really cocooned in somewhat quickly. With young kids who weren't able to be vaccinated or are maybe more at risk, they must have had to really navigate if it is worth going to this person's house to do this. Is that going to put my child at risk? There was so much we didn't know, and we're now two years into this. I think it's the disruption in routines.

We've heard from some families, this is their [...] child. Their experience and their talk levels versus the development of their older children are strikingly different to the point that parents are like, I'm a little concerned, and that's why we're signing up for the class.

Marnetta: We talked a lot about families. Families are the primary caregivers of their children, but we also have teachers, right? They've had an impact on the infants as well. What did that look like in your space, Barb?

Barb: In Virginia Beach, our childcare centers were considered essential service. They were opened back up fairly quickly for essential workers, and they remained open. They've really been the frontline throughout the pandemic, helping people get back to work and caring for kids.

There was a point when we knew that this was going longer that we looked at, okay, where are kids learning? Right now, they're at home with this adult caregiver or they're in early care and education programs. We wanted to strengthen and support those adults to support young children's learning.

We've been doing LENA Start with our parents pre-COVID, but during COVID, we were launching LENA Grow where we could go in and really support that classroom teachers, help them get a view of what their language environment was in their classroom, coach them, help them set goals, and remind them of the importance of the work they can do.

Our classroom teachers have been inspired and they felt supported. They had a heavyweight (just like parents) about trying to keep all the children in their programs safe, trying to keep them and their families safe, and then continue to do this important early childhood education work to support our young learners.

Marnetta: Yeah. When we think about infants, the value and the importance of that face-to-face interaction, and the fact that your educators were masked up, how did that impact their interactions with the infants? Does it parallel what Miss Jill was saying about the LENA study?

Barb: It's hard to say what we saw in the parents and classrooms. With our parents—what Jill was sharing with the data—we had these pre-COVID groups of Start that we compared to during year one Start and their benchmarks of where our families were starting. By year two is where we started to see somewhat of a decline. Our families are going from 50% benchmark recording to the 25th percentile. We were also seeing more of our families fall into this low talk group. Before the pandemic, about 65% of families were low talk. Two years in, we're seeing 80% of our families falling into low talk.

We saw amazing work going on in early childhood classrooms. Their talk environment in many of these classrooms with smaller ratios was still at high levels. We saw teachers using amazing tools and tricks in place of that expressive language with the mask. We saw a lot of resilience and adapting. We know it's had an effect and we've all learned how to navigate through this and do it safely.

The other thing is the mental health and the social-emotional wellness of the adult caregivers, our outlets of support. We all thrive with human development and human interactions. Sometimes, our support levels were affected too, so that's going to have its effect on our adult caregivers.

Marnetta: Most definitely, because you can't pour from an empty cup. They have to be fueled, fed, and given what they need in order to be able to support their children because they're in survival mode as well along with their children. Thank you for that.

My next question is going to be what do these findings mean for children's future school readiness? I'm going back to you, Jill, with what LENA found out. Let's talk about impact.

Jill: One thing I will mention is when I was talking about the data, there's one finding I didn't include. We also looked at the socio-economic status of our participants within different groups. We found that the child vocalization results and the turn-taking results are both most pronounced in the lowest socio-economic group. We were seeing the biggest declines in baseline turn-taking and child vocal output in that lowest group.

I feel like that's an important thing to bring up because we know that people living in under-resourced communities were hit the hardest by the pandemic. That is really important when we're talking about long-term outcomes.

When I think about conversational terms, I think about them as the first link of a chain and a sequence of things that needs to happen for a child to optimize child development. If you have turn-taking early when children are babies, they're going to be experiencing more vocabulary and building their vocabulary. That drives reading readiness and kindergarten readiness. Because their vocabulary is vigorous, it's easier to learn to read. That is correlated with third-grade reading scores which are very predictive of success in school.

When you see a weakening in the first link of the chain, that's concerning and that's something that you want to really address as soon as you can. I wanted to bring these results out because I think it's time to start thinking about supporting families and organizations that work with young children.

Barb: Can I add one thing to this too? Jill, I know we've shared that we saw a drop in our Start benchmark data when families started, but the other part we saw is that once families were connected to the strength-based parent group and they were learning from each other, they were getting these feedback reports that gave them a sense of where their top levels were in setting individualized goals for themselves. We were giving take-home resources that would continue to support these habits and talking tips. We saw the greatest growth from our group which had the lowest start. They were growing by 35 and 34 percentile from the beginning of the class to 11 weeks into the class.

For me, once they had awareness of the importance of it, they were supported by other parents who are in the same shared circumstance, and they have the resources, we saw this sharp increase.

We do a developmental snapshot at the beginning, mid, and at the end of our class. Our two-year-into-COVID fall group started low on the snapshot, but they developed three months for every month they were in the program just by bringing awareness to it.

On the flip side, we didn't have this pre-COVID Grow data. We had the ability to launch Grow during COVID. We were part of an early education innovation grant, one of the five cities that were using this talk pedometer technology. These teachers were getting this feedback report where they were getting individualized feedback for children in their classroom, so they could see children who maybe weren't verbalizing as much. They could do intentional outreach to encourage use of language and conversations with that child.

We saw in our Grow data that our children who started low talk had more than doubled their gains when they had an intentional connection with this caring adult early education professional.

Marnetta: When you looked at the LENA report, was there anything that surprised you?

Barb: For Grow, in early education classrooms, sometimes, we found that the talk levels were better with smaller groups of children. Programs had smaller groups and there were a lot of conversations happening with or without masks. Those kids were still talking and interacting with each other and their adult caregivers. We saw a lot of affirmation for teachers, but then teachers were also able to really identify what children needed for more individualized support and providing. That surprised me.

Our teachers have participated in Grow anywhere from 1-year experience to 25 months in experience, and all of them loved the self-reflection and this feedback report because it really helped them improve as teachers. I think we get the same response from our families.

I have to tell you that our graduation rate during COVID (this last fall group) was 96%. This is a commitment during a pandemic. This is 10–11 weeks of your time. These parents and early education providers are very committed to doing everything they could for their child.

Marnetta: Wonderful. Jill, were there any surprises for you as you look and comb through the data?

Jill: No, I wouldn't say so. We thought that we'd probably see a decline by just knowing what was happening and what we were hearing from others. I wasn't really surprised by that. But I do want to follow up on what Barb said about teachers being able to see the language experiences of the different kids in the classroom and being able to focus on those who are low talkers. We call that an equity lens.

Part of the purpose of LENA's technology is to make sure that all children in the classroom are getting the same amount of language exposure and language experience. What it will do is it will highlight when a child's turns are much lower than everyone else in the classroom. That's really obvious in the reports. Teachers can see that and they focus on it.

We got lots of data showing that when a child starts significantly lower than other children, they're boosted up. You can see that, and then you see that in the language outcomes. You see teachers and parents noticing that the children are talking more and their language skills are increasing. Also, behavioral problems can decrease because children have the language to express themselves. I'm glad to hear that, Barb.

Another thing that I heard from our partners in the childcare arena is they would notice certain children who came back after the pandemic. Some of them were very different personality-wise. They were stressed. They used to be just a calm, happy child, and then they were affected by this too. They absorb what happens at home, they come back to school, and they're a different child.

We have data showing that some kids are above average on turns, and then they came back very low. Again, you get that data, you get the feedback and the strategies, and you can help lift that up. I just feel like the measurement and feedback part of it is so important for trying to address this. It's great that it's working out so well in Virginia Beach, Barb.

Barb: Marnetta, we align our Grow coaching with class which is all about relationships. We know the impact that caring adults can have on the lives of young children by just working on the teacher's sensitivity or the positive climate and using words maybe to describe it. We had some teachers who were talking about the mask, but we had teachers saying I'm smiling at you right now.

Marnetta: Descriptive language

Barb: They reflect it in parallel language that they're verbalizing things that we may have seen, which helps to maybe make up for that screen per se. I think that this whole strength-based coaching, additional lens, and equity perspective on this is that we saw growth in Grow classrooms or lower talk children increase at a statistically significant rate when the teacher had that additional lens to support them.

Same with our families. Our families are resilient, but the intentional focus to increase those interactions is essential right now with young kids. Everyone experienced loss during the pandemic in some way, shape, or form whether it's a friend, a loved one, a habit, or a routine. Many have changed residences. They've moved away or from.

I think we just have to have that shared understanding that it's been tough and that we really are trying to let kids have a sense of safety, caring connection, and support. Let them be kids. Let them play again. Let them get curious and explore.

Marnetta: I love that you mentioned the class and how important interactions are to student outcomes. That's what we know. I always tell people that children don't learn when they don't think you care about them genuinely. There's nothing that you can tell them. There's nothing that's going to transfer if they don't think you care about them, like them, and you don't have that relationship with them which impacts not just learning but also behavior. But that's a whole other podcast.

You mentioned those intentional interactions. I'm wondering, for our listeners, for those who may not have LENA, what are some ways that caregivers like parents and early childhood educators do to support these young children who have been impacted by this pandemic and are experiencing this loss?

Barb: I think talking, reading, singing, and playing with kids are important. For childcare, there have been a lot of turnovers, and we may not have had a consistent caregiver in classrooms. I think we need to really come together to support our current workforce and try to have a consistent caregiver for these kids at this point.

Some of the children in the first year had to have three different care routines. They have the pre-pandemic, the shutdown, and then this coming out period. That consistent, caring adult has probably changed faster in the lives of kids, so it really is a call to action to support and increase support for our early education providers.

Marnetta: Wonderful. Jill, did you want to add anything to that?

Jill: Yeah. I would also just add that I think it's important to bring these findings to light, but I don't want parents to think that they're being blamed in any way for this. I want them to just know that they're not alone. We're seeing consistent changes across all SES groups and also in classrooms. It's something to shine a light on, but we don't want parents to feel overburdened or overstressed.

One of the things that we emphasize in our programs is trying to increase talk during activities that you're already doing during your daily routines, not adding another thing. A lot of people don't have half an hour to sit and play with their child, but if their child's around when they're doing laundry or cooking, there are ways to bring them into it, really expose them to vocabulary, get them talking, and get that connection going. I would say trying to emphasize that would be a good way to take these findings forward.

Marnetta: Yeah. Just make it part of your regular day. I love that. It's not another thing. It's just enhancing what you're already doing. I'm verbalizing self-talking when I'm walking through during the day and using descriptive language and words. It's really simple.

Wonderful, I appreciate that. I think that those are things that people can do that would be really helpful to increase the language for the infants. It's easy, inexpensive, simple, and accessible.

I want to thank you guys, Dr. Jill and Barb, for joining me today. You can find today's episode and the transcript on our website teachstone.com/impacting. As always, behind great leading and teaching are powerful interactions. Let's build that culture together.

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