I support preschool. I’ve taught preschool for 16 years and believe that a good preschool experience enriches children’s lives and helps prepare them for later success. But it is not enough.
If we are serious about helping every child do well in school, and in life, we have to start at the beginning.
Research on children and what helps them succeed in school shows that parents have a crucial role long before the school years begin.
In 1995, Betty Hart, Ph.D., and Todd Risley, Ph. D., of the University of Kansas, published their research in the book "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children." Hart and Risley worked for years with intervention preschool programs trying to learn what prepared children for long-term success in school. They saw children respond to preschool with some real success, but over time they noticed it didn’t do as much as they hoped. The researchers realized they needed to look deeper into language development in the very earliest years in children’s lives.
Hart and Risley discovered there was a huge disparity in the conversational interaction between parents and babies or young children in different homes, all of them stable, functioning families. The children who heard more words did far better in school than the children who did not, and those children on the low end never made up the deficit. Preschool did good things, but it was not enough to overcome what the parents didn’t do.
More research has emerged since Hart and Risley’s study. On Feb. 16, KSL published an article, “More talking, longer sentences help babies' brains,” which reported research that reaffirms the critical role parents play. According to the article, Stanford University psychology professor Anne Fernald said, “You're building intelligence through language.”
All parents want their babies to grow up healthy, happy and smart. But parenting skills are not always intuitive. It is not obvious to everyone that it is important for parents to talk to their babies before they can utter a word. Some families are naturally talkative; some aren’t. Some families are under a great deal of stress and chatting with the baby just doesn’t register as urgent. But it is urgent.
Offering at-risk children an opportunity for preschool will provide some wonderful benefits for those children. But it won’t be enough if parents don’t understand their role, too.
Talking to babies stimulates brain development, gives children vocabulary that enables them to learn more, and creates an emotional bond with the parents who talk to them. Talking to your baby is simple, free and fun and requires no equipment. But parents need to know about it — and most don’t. They need to know that no school program of any kind can replace the important foundation in language development that parents can give.
How to make parents aware of their important role is the next significant step. No one way will reach every parent. Classes for parents offered at preschools, prenatal education, classes in community centers and libraries, and information disseminated through health care providers or churches all could be options.
Harvard professor Clayton Christensen suggested in his book "Disrupting Class" that the concept of talking to babies should be taught in high schools to reach future parents. Providence, R.I., recently began a citywide initiative, Providence Talks, to teach parents their role in getting children off to a good start. Initial feedback is that caregivers who are aware of the need already talk 50 percent more to their children.
Everyone wants the best for babies, and I believe if parents know what to do and how to do it, they will respond. If we are serious about helping every child do well in school, parents need to be part of the solution from the beginning.
Diane L. Mangum has taught for 16 years at Holladay Preschool in Salt Lake City, is a mother of six and a grandmother to 16 children.