Pilot program gives parents tools to boost babies’ brains
A new campaign to help parents put into practice the latest findings from infant brain research is being tested in South King County.
Seattle Times higher-education reporter
Vroom online and on a phone
The program’s website is www.joinvroom.org, and a free Android app, Daily Vroom, is available on the Google Play store. An iPhone app will be available in June.
Over the past dozen years, scientists have made compelling discoveries about how babies and young children build the neurological connections they need to understand their world.
They have pinpointed critical windows in development when babies are attuned to the nuances of all languages. They’ve learned that the quality of a parent’s chatter and a child’s response are strong predictors of future language skills.
They’ve found that for toddlers, screen time is no substitute for one-on-one play.
All that information often reaches the hands of well-educated parents, through popular books and parenting classes. But those same lessons may bypass low-income and immigrant families.
The Bezos Family Foundation has just launched a pilot program to put those discoveries — and a toolbox of practical tips on how to use them — into the hands of parents in the poorest neighborhoods in South King County.
Called Vroom, the program that began Saturday is essentially a privately funded, multipronged public-service announcement.
The tips — there are hundreds of them — will be delivered on posters, cue cards and through a cellphone app and a website, in different languages.
The pilot is expected to lead to a national campaign that could include tips printed on the packaging of popular consumer products such as diapers and toothpaste.
They’re short, carefully crafted lessons that aim to teach parents to talk to their babies, even before they can talk back; to play simple games with them; and to make use of everyday moments, like bath time or breakfast, to build brain connections.
The Bezos Family Foundation, which has had a longstanding interest in brain research, has tapped some of the nation’s best brain scientists to help with Vroom, including the University of Washington’s Patricia Kuhl.
A bag of parenting tips and tricks might not sound like rocket science, but that’s exactly what it is, said Kuhl, who heads the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, the first lab in the world to use a sensitive brain-imaging device to measure brain activity in children while they are awake and interacting.
“It is still an experiment, right?” Kuhl said. “You don’t know if it’ll be sufficient. But somehow we convinced everybody to put seat belts on, and we convinced people that smoking produces black lungs.”
In other words, don’t discount the power of a public-service message.
“I think it has tremendous potential,” said Mary Jean Ryan, executive director of the Community Center for Education Results, which is working to improve educational attainment in South King County. “It’s like a slight awareness shift — to say if you’re aware of the brain-development potential of your baby, everything you do can turn into a brain-development activity.”
Over the past five years, the Bezos Family Foundation — run by Jackie and Mike Bezos, the parents of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — has given about $30 million for research in early learning, including money to the UW’s I-LABS, Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child and New York University’s Parent Corps.
“The research shows how much potential young children have, starting from birth, and that responsive interaction from parents literally builds brain architecture,” said Jackie Bezos, in a statement. “But this is news that has not made it into communities.”
She said Vroom will provide “a common language and a way to act that can be understood by everyone, and won’t require tons of time or money.”
In the Tukwila and Highline school districts — two communities that are a focal point of the effort — more than 70 percent of students are low-income. The districts, with some of the most diverse enrollments in the region, also have some of the lowest test scores and graduation rates.
Kuhl’s research has focused on the earliest years of a child’s life and explored what happens in the brain during those years.
In a recent experiment, she found that babies whose parents talked to them extensively using “parentese,” the singsong, exaggerated way of speaking to a young child, knew more than double the number of words by their second birthdays than babies whose parents did not use parentese as often.
The results seem to dovetail a recent Stanford University study showing that low-income 5-year-olds score two years behind on a standardized language-development test by the time they enter school.
Ellen Galinsky, the author of “Mind in the Making” and president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, was closely involved in writing the tips. She said researchers are increasingly convinced that the give-and-take — also called serve-and-return — between parents and young children is a crucial practice that can build language skills.
“The brain is not a sponge — it’s an action brain,” Galinsky said. When a parent talks to a baby or young child who can’t talk yet, and gives that child a chance to burble back, “the auditory part of the brain lights up. The child is rehearsing the word he is going to say.”
Simple measures have been proved before to have significant effects. The community-service group Southwest Youth and Family Services runs a program called the Parent-Child Home Program, offered nationwide, which coaches new parents on how to read to their children and enjoy time together.
National studies show children from low-income families who complete two full years of the program end up graduating on time from high school, at the same rate as their middle-class peers, said Steve Daschle, executive director of Southwest Youth and Family Services.
“What I find so fascinating is it’s such a simple interaction with kids, but it has such profound effect,” said Daschle, who believes Vroom has the same kind of potential.
Ryan, with Community Center for Education Results, said the group is trying to “really understand the daily routines of families” to find the best ways to use the new brain research. The Bezos Family Foundation has been clear that it doesn’t know what will work, but that it is willing to try a variety of different ideas and see what sticks.
“I have never seen a group of people work in a more intentional way about how to do this right,” Galinsky said.
Once researchers have figured out what works best among low-income and immigrant parents, the lessons will be used to shape a national campaign.
“They’re asking the right questions,” Ryan said. “I think the idea is a fascinating one, and if it’s done right, it could have pretty big potential.”
Kuhl, who has twice been invited to speak at the White House at the request of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, says she is surprised to find that parents outside the scientific community don’t realize that using playful language and simple games builds connections in the brain.
“I’m hoping that putting messages in front of people — that you build brains by doing the simplest of things — will make a difference,” she said.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.