Program taps into tech to analyze, improve children’s speech, reading

MEO’s 10-week pilot project helped families track progress

Wren Nakama, 2, sports a LENA Start vest that is worn once a week and includes a device that tracks conversational and adult words used. Maui Economic Opportunity held a 10-week pilot project to help families measure their child’s development and learn how to broaden their vocabulary and speaking skills. LENN NAKAMA photo

A Maui nonprofit is tapping into the power of technology to improve children’s speaking and reading skills, using special devices that can track the number of words a child uses.

Maui Economic Opportunity’s Kahi Kamalii Infant and Toddler Center launched a free, 10-week pilot project that equipped several local families with special vests and pocket-sized recorders that measure the amount of conversational turns, adult words used and time spent on electronics. The device does not retain the audio or play back recordings, but the data can be plugged into software for analysis.

“It makes the parent aware of how valuable every second is with children, especially during these critical learning years,” said Debbi Amaral, MEO’s director of Early Childhood Services. “Many times we tell parents that they are their child’s first and most important teacher. This program validates this statement by presenting just how important the parent or caregiver role is in the formation of a young child’s development, emotionally and cognitively.”

Filled with educational materials and virtual meetings, the pilot project aimed to promote “early talk,” which can help to develop a child’s vocabulary, communication and reading skills. It was based on LENA Start, a nationwide, evidence-based community program designed to help families learn how to increase conversation with their children during the first few years of life. The goal is to have the child reading by the third grade.

Amaral said there were eight families in the LENA Start cohort at MEO, with the first virtual session on April 8 and a graduation session scheduled for this Thursday.

The LENA Start recording device does not retain the audio or play back recordings but collects data that can be analyzed through software. MEO provided reports to families each week to help them track the child’s progress throughout the 10-week program. DEBBI AMARAL photo

Interactive conversational turns — back-and-forth talking — has been proven to be crucial in healthy early brain development, Amaral said during a Zoom meeting last week.

As part of the program, the child wears the recording device in a vest for one “LENA day” per week, usually Saturday or Sunday since the program operates Monday through Friday.

The device does not transmit and uses the same type of low-power processors as hearing aids, according to LENA’s website. After the device captures a full day of talk, the audio files are transferred to a cloud processing system that uses algorithms to analyze the files. The algorithms can differentiate between adult and child speech as well as TV or electronic noise.

“The software does this without knowing any words or the language being spoken,” LENA’s website says. “It only looks at the sound frequencies and the spaces between sounds to determine whether noise is human speech or something else. The software then generates objective, actionable feedback reports for caregivers on the quantity and quality of talk in their child’s environment.”

Families in MEO’s program are provided a weekly report with their child’s LENA day progress — number of adult words and conversational turns used. The recordings are presented in the form of a chronological report, “so it’s easy to do comparisons from weeks past,” Amaral said.

With LENA Start, Waikapu father Dustin Apana said that his 3-year-old son is speaking more and “even getting better at his words, even though that’s not really the intent of the program, but his words are coming out more clear.”

The recording device served as a reminder that “you have to include him in what you’re doing,” even if it’s just talking through making lunch, making a mess or cleaning the kitchen, Apana said.

“The process is awesome. They did a great job of putting everything together, and the biggest thing I personally got out of it is, it brings a lot of awareness of how the child’s brain develops at the early ages and how having conversational turns can increase the development of the brain during that critical time period,” Apana said. “With life being so busy, with this year in particular, COVID making things even more exciting with families with children, it helps emphasize the importance of interacting with your child verbally.”

The first few years after are crucial — “you can’t get those years back once you pass it,” Apana said.

The device can also track the amount of time spent on or near electronic devices, such as when the child is watching TV or on a parent’s phone or a video game.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, screen time increased in many households.

Making simple changes, such as dedicating at least 10 minutes of TV time to reading or turning the TV off while eating dinner at the table, can increase communication between the family and promote positive engagement with their keiki, Amaral said.

MEO also held one-hour Zoom sessions for families once a week with information on how to increase vocabulary by speaking more and with intent to their child, the importance of early learning and brain development in keiki from birth to 5 years old and the value of reading aloud with them.

Zoom recordings were available for parents who could not attend a meeting.

Last week’s lesson covered how to engage in conversational turns when “out and about” in daily life, while the previous week’s lesson discussed implementing open-ended questions into conversation.

Each week, parents also go through the “14 Talking Tips” listed in the parent guidebook that’s provided at the start of the program, as well as other material like videos, coloring pages and activity ideas for families to use when talking with their child.

LENA Start provides one age-appropriate children’s book with a learning kit per week, time with a certified LENA specialist, a lending library book and engagement activities that parents can do at home with their child.

In addition to the program emphasizing the importance of reading, Apana said that he also found it helpful to have Zoom meetings with other parents who are “going through the same life stage as us and hearing their life stories and experiences.”

“I think I’m going to make it a point to talk story with other parents now that I know we’re not alone and we’re all in the same boat and we can learn a lot from each other,” he added. “I can imagine that this program would be even better if you’re able to interact person to person with other parents, but we’ll take what we can get during these times.”

Apana was among the many hotel industry workers laid off during the pandemic but saw it as a blessing in disguise.

“It’s worked out well that I have had the time to bond with my son and be a part of the program,” he said.

Lenn Nakama said that the 10-week LENA program has been “very beneficial” for him and his nearly 3-year-old daughter Wren.

There are oftentimes simple but valuable lessons that parents “might overlook or don’t do,” but were reinforced during the weekly sessions, such as the importance of reading and communicating with a child more often at this age, Nakama said.

“Even though they are only 2 years old and they can’t really speak very well, their brains are developing,” he said Thursday. “They gave us a lot of ideas on how to maximize or best develop their brains by just communicating with them, paying attention to them.”

His daughter has increased the number of words she uses in a sentence and can better express her likes and dislikes by using corresponding words.

The father of three noted how the program has also helped his youngest child communicate better with her older siblings who are 9 and 11 years old.

“You can see when she’s trying to communicate and not really getting her message across, she gets frustrated, which can lead to tantruming, but the ability to communicate makes it a whole lot more pleasant,” he said. “She can socialize with the rest of the family better.”

Amaral said that “it was very evident” these past few weeks how the cohort at MEO benefited from LENA and how the children showed significant growth. She hopes to be able to offer the program again next year if MEO can secure funding.

This year, more than 75 families participated in LENA Start activities throughout Maui County.

“We have seen significant gains in many different developmental milestones after just 10 weeks of participation and engagement,” said Kendra Bitzig, county coordinator for PATCH Hawaii, a child care resource and referral agency. “The wonderful and unique thing about this program is that anyone can do it.”

LENA Start programs only require one keiki and one adult pair per family to enroll. If participants attend all 10 sessions, they graduate the program with a ceremony, receive a LENA graduation certificate and a gift, Bitzig said.

Families interested in LENA Start or other early development activities can contact the PATCH Maui office at (808) 242-9232 or email kbitzig@patch-hi.org.

For more information about MEO and early child development programs, visit www.meoinc.org.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.


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