Evanston Cradle to Career’s Parent Empowerment Committee is leading  the implementation of “Talk, Read, Sing,” a public awareness and action campaign to educate parents about the importance of early brain and language development and to suggest ways parents can help optimize their child’s early brain development and early literacy skills.

Laura Antolin, the Children’s Outreach Librarian at Evanston Public Library, and Suni Kartha, President of the District 65 School Board, are co-chairs of the Parent Empowerment Committee.  Community members and representatives of many community organizations serve on the committee.

Ms. Kartha told the RoundTable the committee was initially planning to focus on the 0-5 age group, but they decided to home in on the 0-3 age group because research shows “how important those first few years are in terms of brain development, in terms of language development. … It really can significantly impact how children can access school and education later in life.”

Ms. Kartha pointed to the 30 million word gap and to a presentation by Dana Suskind, M.D., founder of the Thirty Million Words Initiative, in Evanston three years ago. Dr. Suskind said research showed that children from low-income families heard 30 million fewer words than children from professional families by the time they were 4 years old. The differences correlated with differences in vocabulary skill at age 4, and differences in test scores in third grade. 

“The essential factor that determined the future learning trajectory of a child was the early language environment: how much and how a parent talked to a child, “said Dr. Suskind. “Children in homes in which there was a lot of talk, no matter the educational or economic status of that home, did better. It was as simple as that.”

Scientific research shows the importance of reading and interacting with children starting at birth. In a series of reports, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (NSCDC) concluded, “Beginning after birth, a strong foundation for human well-being requires responsive environments and supportive relationships to build sturdy brain circuits, facilitate emerging capabilities, and strengthen the roots of physical and mental health.”

A “major ingredient” of a responsive relationship is what NSCDC calls “serve and return” interactions between a child and adults, which are back and forth interactions with a child that “literally shape the architecture of the developing brain.”

 Ms. Antolin said, “The brain research has been around for years and years. … It’s just come out more in the public awareness.”  One thing that has stuck with her, she said, is the difference in vocabulary levels of children at three years old, and how far behind many kids are when they enter kindergarten. “It makes a difference early on,” she said.

It is not only the amount of words spoken, but the type of interactions that a parent has with a child that makes a huge difference. “The idea of taking turns makes a difference,” said Ms. Antolin. “The idea that it’s like a ping pong game. You want to have five interactions going back and forth.

“All of this goes along with other practices. Reading with a child, talking with a child with open-ended conversations. If you think about it, that’s how babies learn and what conversation is – the back and forth. So waiting, repeating what a baby does, drawing out more, looking at a baby, getting their attention, and having these things back and forth is important. That’s how we learn what conversation is and what language is.”

The need in Evanston is significant. Last fall, 34% of children from low-income families who entered kindergarten were not kindergarten ready, compared with 65% of children from non-low-income families. District 65 defines kindergarten ready as scoring above the 50th percentile on four of the five areas tested on the Illinois Snapshot of Early Literacy.

Text Messaging

The Parent Empowerment Committee rolled out a text messaging program about two years ago as its first initiative. Under the program, parents sign up to receive texts, and Ms. Antolin sends them texts or emails two-times a week, containing a short, simple suggestion on ways they can interact with their children, 0-3 years old, and in the process promote early brain development.

 Mr. Kartha said the committee looked at a text-messaging program that Brooklyn’s library had implemented and thought, “This is something we could replicate here.” A number of other communities around the country have had success with text-a-tip programs, which are relatively low-cost.

Before implementing the program, Ms. Antolin said, the committee brought together a group of eight parents with diverse backgrounds to see what they thought about the text messaging approach. “They were interested, so we forged ahead,” she said.

Ms. Kartha said the texts contain simple suggestions that every parent can do, such as when a parent is out walking with a child, talk about the color of the leaves, or talk about the  shapes of things they see; or when a parent is changing a diaper, sing the A, B, Cs.

Ms. Antolin gave some additional examples of the tips, such as counting  steps while walking, playing “I Spy” in the supermarket, focusing on colors or foods.

“It’s really simple, simple things that a lot of parents do already. It validates what they’re doing or it encourages them to do more. They might seem kind of silly to parents, but they make such a huge impact in terms of brain development,” said Ms. Kartha.

Ms. Antolin said she sent out the first texts to about 30 people in April 2016. Currently more than 700 parents have signed up to receive the texts. Parents and caregivers can sign up for the program by texting COE TRS1 to 468311.

The Committee also decided to recommend that parents consider using an app called VROOM, said Ms. Kartha. Parents who sign up for the app  provide their child’s name and age. VROOM provides “interactive tips” tailored to the age of the child, and it also provides the brain research behind the activity. 

Ms. Kartha added that VROOM is totally independent of the Parent Empowerment Committee. “We just wanted to spread the word on it so if parents want to take advantage of it, they can.”

Information Campaign

The Committee has also launched an information campaign to let parents know about the importance of their role in early childhood development. Ms. Antolin said the Committee selected two informational posters that were designed by Too Small to Fail, an initiative of the Clinton Foundation, and distributed the posters to Evanston Hospital, St. Francis Hospital, Erie Family Health Center, some of the pre-schools and child-care centers and home-visiting centers.

The posters contain tips that parents can use to interact with their child, and they also advise parents how to sign up for the texting program.

Ms. Kartha said the idea is when parents are sitting in a waiting room, they would look at the poster, which would stimulate ideas about how parents could have positive interactions with their child, and provide information on how to sign up for the text messaging program.

Going forward, the committee is considering placing posters in pediatricians’ and obstetricians’ offices. “The idea is to have posters plastered across the community and having parents talking about it,” said Ms. Antolin.

The Parent Empowerment Committee also sponsored a “Play Date” in June for kids 0-3 at Family Focus. At the event, there were activity tables, said Ms. Kartha, at which “parents could actively interact with their kids while they were playing.”

The activity tables were staffed by representatives of organizations that are members of the Parent Empowerment Committee, including the Evanston Public Library,  District 65 early childhood, Childcare Network of Evanston, Family Focus, Cherry Pre-School, Unity Pre school, Reba Place, Bundled Blessings and CEDA.

It was a chance “to model some of the things that we’re talking about with our Talk, Read, Sing campaign,” said Ms. Kartha. “The idea was to make sure this wasn’t just a place for parents to drop off their kids and let them play. It was a place for parents to actively interact with their kids while playing. It was exciting to see all that happening. And it was exciting to see parents making conversation with each other.” 

Some of the activities at the event included making a shaker – a bottle filled with beads, which the child could then use to play along with a musician at the event, or a paper puppet to use in a puppet theatre. “These aren’t big things, but they rely on what you know, telling something, and talking back and forth, and interacting around the activity,”  said Ms. Antolin.

About 40 families attended the two-hour program, said Ms. Antolin. She said part of the purpose of the program is to teach the importance of play and to show parents how easy it is for them to have positive interactions with their children while playing. Participating in the program can also be “validating,” she said. If parents are already interacting in a positive way, it is important they know that and know how important it is. “That’s part of this too, to be respectful of what people are already doing, and to let them know it has great importance.”

“All of this is really, really doable. I think that’s part of the message of this campaign,” said Ms. Antolin. “The other is to get this idea passed around.”

Ms. Kartha said the committee plans to offer Play Dates several times a year, possibly at different locations in the City. She said Advocates for Action, a group of parent volunteers formed to assist Evanston’s Cradle to Career initiative, helped monitor the activities at the June Play Date, and they will be asked to help plan the future ones.

Interactive Reading

Reading to a child is also critical. For the last 10 years, Erie Family Health Center has been a partner with the Reach Out and Read program, a national program designed to encourage parents to read to their children, from infancy through age 5. When Erie established a new clinic in Evanston in 2013, the program was implemented there.

 Under the program, doctors or nurse practitioners give families who bring in their children, ages 0-5, an age-appropriate book and help them understand the importance of reading aloud to their children. Importantly, they give parents suggestions on ways to interact with their children while reading.

 “Reading is a great tool that parents can be used to encourage the serve-and-return interactions that are so important for brain development,” Dr. Mariana Glusman, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg Medical School, and an attending physician at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago’s Uptown Clinic, previously told the RoundTable.

“That’s where Reach Out and Read comes in. It’s not just a book. It’s an interaction. What we want to teach parents is that a book is a tool to help you talk more, to interact more, to have more intricate conversations with your child.”

Reading aloud forms a bond with a child and also helps build the child’s vocabulary, because books contain many words that are not part of everyday conversations, said Ms. Antolin. But a parent can also use a book as a tool to interact with a child. A parent can talk about pictures in the book, pause and talk to a child about a prior experience related to the text, ask questions, said Ms. Antolin. 

Ms. Kartha said some books lend themselves to having a conversation about feelings. “[Children] may not in that moment process that, but that’s how they’re going to learn about emotions. It’s forming the foundation for all those skills they’re going to need.”

Ms. Kartha added that Ms. Antolin has done a great job making sure families can build libraries early on for their kids. Research shows the importance of having a library of books in the home. Ms. Antolin said EPL received a grant from the Evanston Community Foundation last year to purchase books to provide families.

Ms. Antolin and Ms. Kartha said Erie’s program is aligned with what the Parent Empowerment Committee is attempting to do with the “Talk, Read, Sing” program.

“A lot of our partners are doing great work,” said Ms. Kartha. “So we’re not trying to say that this is better or how you do it. We’re trying to support what’s already out there and add to it as resources, and really trying to make sure families are aware of the resources out there.”

Ms. Antolin said, “This is not to replace something, but to augment and support what’s already out there.”

Ms. Kartha said, “This is simple. Whatever the barriers are that people might feel, that they themselves don’t have enough education to teach their kids anything. No. We all have something to offer, every parent.”

Next Steps

The Committee is meeting in the next few weeks with Evanston Cradle to Career’s Literacy on Track Committee, together with a consultant. The Literacy on Track Committee is focusing on the 3-5 age group. The point of the meeting is to discuss developing a strategic plan to make sure the spectrum 0-5 is supported as much as it can be in the Evanston community, said Ms. Kartha.

On April 27, partners in the Evanston Cradle to Career initiative adopted a goal to increase the percentage of kids who are kindergarten-ready when they enter District 65 to 85% by 2025. Last fall the overall percentage was 55%.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...