A smart start

(First published in the May 31, 2018 issue of City Pages)

Local parents are lauding a ground-breaking new tool for early childhood development. The deceptively simple goal: Help babies’ brains grow by talking with them more.


Brad and Megan Sippel talk to their son Finley, 15 months, at the Marathon County Library. “Follow the child’s lead” is one of the lessons they learned through LENA Start, so they talk to Finley while he plays.

Stephanie Leskoviansky thought she spoke plenty of words to her child. So did her fellow parents when they joined the very first local LENA Start program at the Marathon County Public Library this spring. Leskoviansky says she read to her children, spent time with them, and did all the learning things a good parent does with their child.

“I was shocked,” Leskoviansky says about when she receive the first round of reports measuring her actual verbal interaction with her one-year-old. Leskoviansky didn’t expect to find herself in the 48th percentile of parents.

Many of the other parents also were surprised at how little they actually speak to their child, and more importantly, how little they actually listen, compared to what they thought.

It’s not a knock on them. The problem of too little verbal interaction with babies is so ubiquitous that it’s the reason LENA Start program exists. The voice-measuring technology program was founded on research that shows that 80% of a child’s language development occurs within the first three years of life. The research troubled Terry Paul, who, with his wife Judi, founded Renaissance Learning based in Wisconsin Rapids. The importance of language in early childhood became a topic of one of his final videos.

Because if all that brain development occurs within the first three years, any intervention in the school system is far too late.

Research shows that language ability is influenced by something deceptively simple: how many words are spoken to the child, and more importantly, how many turns of conversation the child has (that is, how often the child speaks back, or at least attempts to). The higher the number of conversational turns, the better that child’s language development, which should improve academic performance later in life.

What if there could be a program to help parents improve language development before the child ever gets to school? That idea inspired the Pauls to found LENA. It stands for Language Environment Analysis, the underlying technology to measure verbal data. Parents in the LENA Start program take home a bib-like vest the child (age 0-3) wears that contains a device that measures speech. That data produces a report to show parents how many words they’re speaking to their child, how much the child speaks or responds, and how the coaches can help parents improve these scores. Parents sign up for a 13-week session, with a weekly, one-hour meeting to review the data and discuss progress with the coaches.

LENA Start began in 2015 with only a handful of pilot programs in the nation. With its launch this spring, Marathon County still was one of less than 20 in the entire U.S., country, making it one of the earlier pioneers.

In terms of both parental attendance and results, it has been such a big success that local organizers plan to more than double its size for the fall session, from two session groups to five. Those who have gone through the program are becoming LENA’s biggest advocates.

“I’ve told all my friends with kids that age, ‘You would love this,’ “ Leskoviansky says. “Online, I’ve been sharing the reports on Facebook, talking about the studies we’ve learned from. Everyone has been super interested.”

That’s pretty common amongst all LENA programs, its president says; that parents do most of their advertising for them.

Given the enthusiasm of parents going through the program, it’s likely LENA Start will continue expanding. And that will help researchers learn more, as they collect data from more families, and the children enter school age. Then researchers will have a definitive answer as to whether the results are long-lasting.

The program at work


Lada Xiong Vang (pictured), her husband Pao Vang, and their son Jacobi, were among the 18 families who recently completed the LENA Start’s first local program, through the Marathon County Public Library.

Pao Vang jokes that he didn’t realize he would be the one going to school when his family signed up for LENA Start. He and wife Lada Xiong Vang were among several parents who attended last week’s graduation for those who made it through the program. For the first two cohorts, 18 of the 21 families completed the training, or 86%, says the local director, Dr. Corina Norrbom. That graduation rate is higher than the program’s average of 80% nationwide. (Local participants were divided into Monday morning and Thursday evening sessions at the Marathon County Public Library).

At the graduation celebration, children ran around, laughing, punching balloons in the library’s main conference room while parents talked to each other and volunteers. This is not a typical LENA session. Children usually are cared for by pedagogical students from the Medical College of Wisconsin and licensed child care workers while parents receive instructions (free of distraction) on how to improve their scores.

The bib their child wears at home measures the number of adult words and number of children’s words or utterances. It also measures background sounds such as those coming from a TV or radio. Parents are scored on those three categories. After talking about the reports and how to interpret them, parents are given tips for how to improve each of those categories.

Lada Xiong Vang was one of those who was surprised at her first reports. She thought she spoke to her child a lot, but her numbers were lower than she expected, especially in the child’s response metric. Since a child can take five times as long to process speech than an adult, one of the lessons parents learn is to wait and give the child a chance to respond.

“Once we were able to realize that we were talking more at the child than with them, it helped us slow down a little and wait for them to respond,” Lada Xiong Vang says. “I saw an increase in my son’s speech development when we practiced that more.”

For Leskoviansky, the program presented a unique challenge. Of the 21 participants, she was the only single mother. That meant she had to speak twice as much to her child just to keep up with other parents. The benefit, though, is that the absence of another adult created more space for the baby to respond.

“They don’t really tell you to do anything different,” Leskoviansky says. “It’s more just do what you’re always doing, but tell baby what you’re doing.”

In other words, there’s a benefit to simply talk about whatever day-to-day thing is happening at the moment.

For Lada and Pao, that meant speaking in two languages, Hmong and English. They wondered if bilingual speech would make a difference. For the purposes of LENA, it doesn’t seem to matter as long as they are talking to the child, and listening for a response, Lada says.

Brad and Megan Sippel heard about the program while it was still taking form in Marathon County, while Megan was pregnant with Finley. Now 15 months old, Finley joined Brad and Megan at the Monday morning sessions.

Having followed LENA Start since the beginning, the Sippels were influenced by it even before joining. Both made an effort to talk more to Finley as soon as he was born.

Their talking scores started out pretty high. But even with the heads up, they, like many parents, weren’t waiting long enough to let Finley speak back, even if that meant some kind of utterance or attempt at words—just baby talk. They also learned to use more direction (up, down) and math (numbers) words, and to follow Finley’s lead by conversing around the things he finds interesting.

Participants track their progress over the 13 weeks of the program. They received stars, which counted toward a raffle drawing for small prizes. That little reward was a much bigger hit among parents than initially expected, Norrbom says. “They were disappointed not to get stars for the last report,” Norrbom says.

The stars, along with other incentives such as gas cards for attending a certain number of sessions, catered food for each session, and a free book each class helped provide motivation; the reports helped provide accountability.

But what about being recorded? Leskoviansky says that made her nervous at first. Every parent loses their cool at some point, after all; would researchers judge her? “Everyone wants to look like this perfect, patient parent,” Leskoviansky says. “But after a few weeks, it’s fine.” After seeing how the recording device plugs into the computer and spits out data, she grew more comfortable. Nobody listens to any actual audio recording; the technology turns the audio into measurable metrics such as number of words, pauses, etc. She says it also helps that the bib looks like a colorful vest, not a piece of hardware.

Marathon County Public Library Director Ralph Illick says they jumped at the chance to host the LENA Start program. The library’s focus in recent years has shifted to lifelong learning for all ages, and LENA couldn’t be more of a perfect fit with that idea, Illick says. “From birth through adulthood, we want to think of them as part of the community,” he says about young children. “We want to make sure to give them the tools they will need to be successful students and individuals.”

Expanding, with parent convenience in mind


Stephanie Leskoviansky’s son, Liam, wears his LENA vest, which analyzes conversations to measure the number of words spoken (even “baby talk”) to and by young children at home.

The Wausau-area LENA Start program is ready to expand when it heads into the fall session, slated to kick off Sept. 10, Norrbom says. Organizers have raised $130,000 of the $180,000 goal for the two-year pilot program, to cover 180 families. They have enough to cover the first year and are confident the remaining money will be raised by the time the second year starts. They found ways to save money. Much of the food at the parents sessions was donated, and medical students helped assist two licensed child care providers. Most of the expense, though, is in the hardware. Expanding the program means having enough tech bibs for more families.

One idea being explored is an employer-hosted model. LENA Start will try this out with North Central Health Care in the fall, running a session group at the facility itself. NCHC has agreed to donate 30 minutes of work time to pair with 30 minutes of lunch break so that employees with young children can participate and conduct their weekly coaching sessions at work.

LENA Start is operating as a collaboration. The medical students helping with childcare during the parent sessions were there as part of their project at the Medical School of Wisconsin, for the class Physicians in the Community, which Norrbom teaches. One of the students is working with medical school instructor Dr. Amy Prunuske to conduct research on the data collected via LENA Start.

The program is expanding on the national level too, says Steve Hannon, President of the LENA Foundation. In 2017, LENA added 11 new program sites across the country, and has now served 1,500 families, he says. There are now 17 sites nationwide.

The sites themselves are important, Hannon says, because parents can work collaboratively, sharing tips, talking about what worked and didn’t, and helping to motivate each other. “That’s one of the contributors to why we’re seeing [graduation] rates in the 80% range,” Hannon says.

One surprise is immediate positive effects, Hannon says. They expected to see results six months or more down the road, but found that children’s language skills improved within the 13-week session, both in being more expressive and more engaged.

Parents in the program reported similar findings, observing that their children responded quickly to more verbal interaction. The parents themselves improved their scores. Leskoviansky, for instance, found herself in the top 90th percentile in the last few weeks of the program. Lada and Pao notice a big change by the final report too.

Because LENA Start is so new, it’s too early to tell the impact it will have once the first LENA children enter K-12 school. But based on the results so far, paired with the underlying research, LENA advocates both locally and nationally are optimistic this targeted, early childhood program will help narrow achievement gaps and make a difference overall in classrooms.