Techie Tools Teach Parents to Talk to Toddlers

Smartphones and other devices help parents teach and reach their little ones.

Despite a rough upbringing, Sabena Vaughan thought she was a pretty good mom. In addition to raising two kids from her first marriage, now in college, she and her husband, Stephan Moriarty, raised his daughter from his first marriage and five more kids from their own marriage.

But since they both had been raised poor and had a long history of abuse and neglect in their families and in their first marriages, they felt they missed out on the kind of child-rearing advice passed from one generation to the next.

It didn't occur to them to ask her two youngest, 7-year-old Eva or 5-year-old Phineas, to help with simple tasks like folding laundry or doing the dishes, or to involve them in simple everyday conversations as part of their education outside school.

"My kids were fed and happy. But you don't know you're building those brains at such an early age," said Vaughan, 48, a stay-at-home mom and Marine Corps veteran in Ashland, Oregon. "You don't realize what a little more can do."

+ Sabena and Stephan's eight children, from top to bottom: Alexandra, 23; Brandon, 20; Diana, 17; Annessa, 13; Connor, 12; Aidan, 8; Ava, 7; Phineas, 5. (Photos courtesy of Sabena Vaughan)

"I feel I've been empowered to connect with all my children on a deeper level." —Sabena Vaughan, Mother

But now she gets that little nudge from an app on her phone. The app, called Vroom, and the idea behind it, are simple. Every day, it delivers to the parent's phone a "brain-building tip," an exercise in which the parent uses everyday activities to start a conversation with the child.

For example, the app might suggest that when you get home, you ask your child about the weather and what it meant for you, saying something like, "Today was cold. I wish I wore a heavy jacket because I was outside all morning."

For Vaughan, it's a support that helps her avoid the embarrassment she sometimes felt asking for help with child-rearing. "When you've been living in poverty, you're very reluctant to ask for help, because it's another piece of shame in your bucket," she said.

Not only that, but she said that going through the exercises made her feel like she too was developing. "It builds your brain, too, to connect with your child," she said. "And it tells you the brainy background of the common thing you're doing. I feel really empowered by taking these little steps and knowing what I'm accomplishing."

The Vroom app is one of several innovations that use technology to tackle the "word gap," which has attracted a great deal of attention. Research on child brain development shows that getting parents, especially those in low-income and under-resourced families, to speak more with their kids makes a big difference in how children do once they enter school and beyond.

Finding ways to use technology unobtrusively, and in ways that focus on parent-child interaction, rather than the use of a device, is tricky.

One in 10 U.S. adults have high-speed Internet access only through their smartphones, and this is true even more among low-income families, 13 percent of which are in this situation. Mobile phones are ubiquitous, and can keep parents from focusing on kids.

But Vroom's developers have decided to use that presence to their advantage, without making the machine the star of the show.

"What we have is an opportunity to use technology to foster person-to-person interaction," said Megan Wyatt of the Bezos Family Foundation, which funded the development of the app. "None of the tips require kids or parents to hit a button. You get the tip, set the phone aside, and do the activity."

In addition to Vroom, other tech-based efforts to help families make positive changes in behavior that have received backing from the Aspen Institute include an app that helps parents and children learn about their finances, and a data-management system that helps Head Start programs develop individual family plans.

But the parent-talk tech program with the most buzz involves a device that measures the frequency, length, and type of conversations parents have with their young children and gives them immediate feedback on what they're doing.

The LENA system, which has parents and children wear a small recorder for more than 12 hours a day, followed up by weekly visits from trained coaches to give feedback on the results, has been around since 2007, and used primarily by researchers. But in the past year and half it has been used on a much larger scale. First, in a pilot program in Providence, Rhode Island, that involved 75 families in its initial phase and looks to expand this fall to 2000 families, roughly equal to the number of babies born in the city each year. And new programs began this spring in the school system of Huntsville, Alabama, and the library system in San Mateo, California.

And both LENA Foundation and Vroom find that they get the best results when the tech doesn't stand alone, but is supported by community institutions that parents trust, such as schools, early-education centers, and libraries.

When Vroom did its first large-scale rollout in King County, Washington—which includes the city of Seattle—it hit up farmer's markets, bus and bus shelter ads, and 140 businesses to get out information about the app.

And while more data are needed to judge the long-term success of these interventions, some of the early data is promising. For example, a recent study led by Dana Suskind, founder of the 30 Million Word project in Chicago, which used the LENA system, found that parents in the program significantly increased the range of vocabulary they used with their kids, and the amount of back-and-forth conversation they had with them.

"There's no magic bullet," said Dr. Jill Gilkerson, director of child language research at LENA Foundation, which runs the recording and counseling programs. "What we've seen is that families see a benefit, even though it's a lot of work, recording all day long. Families tell us they see changes in their children, that they interact more."

Helping parents understand what they're already doing right is a powerful motivator for them, and for other community stakeholders who invest in these tech tools and the support that makes them most successful.

And in families such as Vaughan and Moriarty's, the effects ripple out to the whole family.

"It's calmed the house a lot," said Vaughan. "There was a lot of yelling before, but now the older ones see us interact with the younger kids in intimate ways, and they let their guard down. I feel I've been empowered to connect with all my children on a deeper level."