Spread the Providence model to close the 30 million “words gap” for poorer children

baby-talk-providenceBy age 3, children in impoverished households already face a stunning disparity in their language development compared to children with professional families. Well before they enter kindergarten, the poorer children will have heard 30 million fewer words in their home environment. Plus the quality of what these children hear will typically be different from the responsive conversation, sophisticated talk, and affirmative feedback that babies hear from affluent parents. (It’s also why passively listening to TV isn’t just unhelpful; it’s harmful.)

This “word gap” matters. According to seminal research on the language disparity, “[w]ith few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.”

Now, intervening in parents’ interactions with their children is often a sensitive issue, especially given the racial and class dynamics implicated. (See: debates around “poor parent shaming.”) Nailing down the causal relationships is also the key challenge. Are the affluent parents who incidentally talk more to their kids the kinds of parents who can provide greater resources and devote more time to their intellectual development? There are past studies out there showing that how parents socialize their children doesn’t have much impact on their intelligence later. If so, then one can easily imagine the outcome of an intervention that induces poorer parents to talk more to their babies, without alleviating their poverty.

That said, the fixable nature of the words gap is too compelling to ignore. It is, at the least, worth replication and further study. One researcher found, for example, that “poor women were simply unaware that it was important to talk more to their babies — no one had told them about this piece of child development research.”

It’s this problem that Angel Taveras, the former Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, identified as an opportunity for a mayors innovation competition. As he told The New Yorker, “Head Start is awesome. But we’ve gotta do something even before Head Start.” So he proposed the following:

“Taveras named his proposed project Providence Talks, and decided that technology would be supported with counselling. During home visits with low-income parents, caseworkers would discuss the science of early brain development. They’d advise parents to try to understand better what their kids were feeling, instead of simply saying no. Parents would be told that, even when they were bathing a child or cooking dinner, they could be narrating what was going on, as well as singing, counting, and asking questions. The caseworkers would bring books and demonstrate how to read them: asking children questions about what was going to happen next and livening up the dialogue with funny, high-pitched voices and enthusiastic mooing and woofing.”

Providence Talks won the $5 million Grand Prize of that year’s ideas competition, which was expressly created to inspire other mayors and spread promising innovations. The initiative has garnered serious attention from policymakers since then, including President Barack Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, but let’s hope this good idea spreads even further.

For more information, see “The Talking Cure,” The New Yorker (2015); “The Power of Talking to Your Baby,” The New York Times (2013); “Providence Is Top City in Contest of Ideas,” The New York Times (2013); and “Providence Named as Grand Prize Winner in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge,” City of Providence, Rhode Island (2013).