Nearly a quarter of American children are living in poverty, says the National Center for Children in Poverty, totaling about 14 million. This is 2.5 million greater than in 2000, with the number of children living in poverty increasing 21% between 2000 and 2008.
Thus, 14 million children are at an academic disadvantage from day one: they are on the losing side of an education achievement gap compared to children of more well-off parents.
Recent research reported in the New York Times suggests that “brain development is buoyed by continuous interaction with parents and caregivers from birth, and that even before age 2, the children of the wealthy know more words than do those of the poor.”
While there are several wide-reaching programs in place – subsidies for child-care, targeted education programs for toddlers – advocates for the poor argue that closing this gap begins in the home.
According to the McCormick Foundation, more than half of all children under 2 are cared for at home by a parent or relative on a daily basis. Thus, there has been a nationwide push to target in-home language acquisition and vocabulary expansion.
Several organizations employ a home visitation technique, with development experts training parents on how to stimulate conversation with their infants and toddlers. “We don’t want parents talking at babies,” Claire Lerner of the nonprofit development group Zero to Three said. “We want parents talking with babies.”
Linguistic development is just one of four aspects of critical early childhood development, says the World Bank, the others being physical, cognitive and socioemotional development.
While poverty places children at a developmental disadvantage, failing to enhance a child’s education and growth in the early years tightens the grip of poverty and perpetuates a cycle of impoverished existence.
To make tracking early childhood and linguistic development more accessible, philanthropists and researchers have developed LENA – the Language Environment Analysis System.
LENA is a small audio recorder that conveniently attaches to children’s clothing or slips in a small vest pocket.
The recorders “distinguish between words overheard from television or other electronics and live human conversations,” reports the New York Times. The audio recording is then analyzed by computer software and progress methodically tracked.
The LENA Research Foundation boasts the success of the “world’s first automatic language collection and analysis tool” and believes LENA can help both experts and parents improve language acquisition and development.
LENA can help determine the effectiveness of home visits and audio recording in the short run in improving parent-infant communication.
In the long run, researchers will be looking for advancements in “future academic performance,” reports the New York Times. “Children who receive assistance in their early years achieve more success at school,” says child rights group UNICEF. “As adults they have higher employment and earnings, better health and lower levels of welfare dependence and crime rates than those who don’t have these early opportunities.”
Thus, LENA and early childhood education is not only an investment in children, but in our global health and economy.