Gift of gab: Frayser children reach for kindergarten readiness before they learn to talk

Lashicka Drinkwater leans against the wall outside of a classroom in the basement of Pursuit of God Church in Frayser. Her 14 month-old baby plays in the nursery next door. Drinkwater is on break between lessons at a new class for ‘kin and kith’ caregivers parents, family, neighbors of children zero to thirty months.

“I’ve never seen a program like this,” she said.

It’s only the second week of the 13-week course, but Drinkwater and the 14 other participants have already learned that their babies’ brains will grow to 80 percent of their adult sizes in the first three years of life. They’ve also learned just how critical conversations are to that development, and now they use monitors at home to record how many conversations they have with their children.

The language development class, developed by the LENA Foundation, is formed through a new partnership between Agape Child and Family Services and The University of Memphis’ Coordinated Effort to Enhance Development (CEED), a multidisciplinary project funded by Urban Child Institute and housed under the university’s Child Development and Family Studies Program within the University College.
Children play at Pursuit of God Church while their parents attend class next door. The new program teaches about language and brain development for children zero to 30 months. (Agape)

The partners hope that coupling Agape’s existing two-generation family support model with this new focus on early childhood conversations will help improve kindergarten readiness and lifelong success.

Agape and CEED believe that the 13-week intensive course on language skills, conversation building, and brain development will increase children’s social-emotional intelligence, which they say is actually more important to kindergarten readiness and long-term educational success than shapes, colors, and the ABC’s. A 10-year longitudinal study released this year agrees.

“We know that one of the most critical skills that children need to complete kindergarten successfully … is emotional self-regulation,” said Dr. Loretta Rudd, who is the project director for CEED, as well as faculty and coordinator of the Child Development and Family Studies program.
Related: "When your child has a medical diagnosis, you just might need a lawyer"

"If you can’t keep your body together, you’re not going to be able to pay attention and learn those other skills,” Rudd continued. “And we know that self-regulation is predicated on strong social-emotional skills developed in those first three years of life and language.”

David Jordan, president and CEO of Agape, said this focus on early childhood learning is something Agape’s been missing and is especially important for neighborhoods like Frayser.

“We know the reality is at least 50 percent of our kids have experienced four ACEs or more,” said Jordan. Adverse Childhood Experiences are events or circumstances like poverty, incarceration of a family member, homelessness, or domestic violence that negatively affect a child’s development.
David Jordan is executive director of Agape Child and Family Services, one of two core partners in the Frayser early childhood education program. (Agape)

These experiences impact social-emotional growth, and thus, the ability to absorb foundational information. Babies who grow up with multiple ACEs may hear millions fewer words than their peers in their early years, and that absence of communication has major impacts on learning.

“Less than 20 percent of our kids are kindergarten ready when they hit the door versus the 42 percent in Shelby County Schools. So our kids are going upstream,” said Jordan about the children Agape serves.

Frayser is a predominately African-American community, and social-emotional intelligence is especially important for young boys of color. Four-year-old Black boys are expelled from early learning environments at nearly four times the rate of their white counterparts. It’s an expulsion rate that will persist throughout their school careers and contribute to their overrepresentation in rates of high school dropouts and adult prison populations. Conversely, white children are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and medicated.

“They have trouble self-regulating, they get sent to timeout over and over again, and then they get sent to the office, and before you know it they are kicked out of their early learning environment,” said Rudd.
Related: "City-wide diaper drive to support Memphis families in poverty"

“Then we say, ‘OK, we kicked you out, but when you turn five, it is mandatory that you attend school, and now we want you to go there and be happy. And we want you to learn when what you’ve [already] learned is that school doesn’t want you, school can’t handle you,” she continued.

It will be at least two more years before the oldest children in the joint CEED-Agape program are tested for kindergarten readiness, but the partners expect the data to show a significant increase compared to peers whose families didn’t participate.

In fall 2017, Boulder, Co.-based LENA Foundation launched its LENA Start curriculum in Memphis. Nonprofit Seeding Success coordinated the implementation, and Porter-Leath, Su Casa, and CEED facilitated the classes.

LENA Start is a 13-week course focused on conversation development in low-income young children. It equips caregivers with strategies, known as ‘talking tips,’ for engaging their child to encourage social-emotional development. The program is active in 17 cities across the U.S.

“[LENA Foundation is] looking for the density of children under the age of three living in poverty. Naturally, Memphis came up, kind of up to the top,” said Rudd.
Dr. Loretta Rudd leads the University of Memphis' Coordinated Effort to Enhance Development project, one of two core partners in the Frayser early childhood education program. (University of Memphis)Urban Child Institute and partner CEED soon began looking for ways to expand the program’s impact.

“The question is how do you scale this model?,” said Jordan.

Agape was a natural fit because the wraparound services they provided could support and track families once they graduated from the 13-week program. Their two-generation model provides both children and caretakers a range of supports from tutoring and workforce development to counseling and help with emergent needs like utilities when families are faced with sudden unemployment.

Agape operates in three apartment communities in Frayer and 10 more in Whitehaven and Hickory Hill, embedding social workers and counselors known as ‘connectors’ in the complex for direct, in-home support. They also have connectors embedded in all 15 of the schools attended by the children in those apartments so students have wraparound support wherever they go.

But for Agape, embedding primarily in K-12 schools meant they were missing opportunities to support younger children.
Related: "Agape embeds in Whitehaven to prevent youth from entering foster system"

“This piece, which is paramount for us, is the early childhood focus. So we’re just real excited to partner with Dr. Rudd and the University of Memphis funded through Urban Child Institute,” said Jordan.

Agape already offered their own caregiver development course, Nurturing Parenting, that complemented the LENA Start program. Nurturing Parenting is a strengths-based parenting model meant to reduce abuse and neglect by helping parents understand their own needs and the developmental needs of their children.

In 2018, the Agape-CEED partnership earned funding from Urban Child Institute for up to three years of their hybrid programming in Frayser. At each class meeting, parents participate in both LENA Start, facilitated by the CEED team, and Nurturing Parenting, facilitated by Agape. The funding further provides childcare, snacks, gift cards for participation, and a new book each week donated by Books From Birth.

“To my knowledge, we are the first organizations to couple [Nurturing Parents and LENA Start] together,” said Rudd of the classes held at Pursuit of God Church.
Starlett Douglas shows caregivers how to position a recording device on their child. The devices monitor how many conversations the child is engaged in and how many electronic devices are nearby. (Agape)
The program is also incorporating technology alongside classroom learning.

One day a week the children wear a recording device that tracks how many back-and-forth conversation exchanges they have with any adult in a 10-foot radius, even if their contributions are just coos and babbles. It also monitors any electronic devices nearby for a picture of how much screen time they get compared to conversation time. Each class meeting, the parents examine the recorded results and brainstorm ways to increase the number of exchanges.

“It was fun to me to show how I interacted with Savannah,” said Sharon Bates, whose daughter is two. She said Savannah is naturally chatty, but the class, “Helps me understand her better. Like when she cries, I say, ‘No, talk to Mommy, tell me what you want.’”

Bates did the recording first on a Friday early in the morning, but her daughter was sleepy and not her usual lively self. She’s excited to see how the results differ when she tries it on a weekend when the whole family is home and active.

And while it’s too soon for Frayser-specific data, LENA’s data tracked since 2015 across five cities shows that caregivers talk to their children 75 percent more than before the classes and their children’s language scores are growing at twice the rate of their non-program peers.

There’s also hope that Agape’s deep community connections will help to move the program from 13-weeks and 15 participants to a whole-community impact.
Parent Sharon Bates listens to tips for encouraging conversation with her two year-old daughter, Savannah. (Agape)“One of the biggest difficulties for us is just the isolation that so many of us, including the people in our communities, live in,” said Jordan.

“We have a lot of single mothers in this neighborhood and parents that don’t have a support system from their families and that’s what we need,” said Megan Clark, a Frayser resident and participant in the CEED-Agape program.

Clark is in school for a bachelor’s degree in business administration while raising her three children. She said she appreciates hearing the other parents’ experiences and how they deal with different situations. Drinkwater said she’s already shared what she's learning about infant development with a pregnant family member, and Bates said she’s talked to her neighbors about the program.

“What is called social capital is kind of the secret sauce … that becomes some of the power stuff, the really unseen stuff,” said Jordan.

More tangibly, the partners are planning for more 13-week classes. Starlett Douglas is one of the facilitators of the LENA Start portion and said they’re planning for three more classes this fall and three more in spring and summer 2019, again with around 15 caregivers per class.
Related: "Video: More than a laundromat, South Memphis center strengthens community and childhood literacy"
The partners are hoping to expand beyond Frayser next year.

Agape and CEED applied in early October for additional funds from Urban Child Institute that would duplicate the Frayser classes in Agape’s other two target communities, Whitehaven and Hickory Hill.

Additional funding also would bring three new models to Memphis. The Nurturing Parenting Home Visitation and LENA Home programs take the classroom learning directly into families' homes. LENA Grow is targeted to early learning professionals and childcare providers in early learning centers.

The expansion would include Agape, CEED, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and Porter-Leath each facilitating a piece of the program. If approved, work could start as early as January.

“Wherever the child and children are being cared for, we’re trying to have a touch point there to impact social-emotional development,” said Jordan. “The ultimate outcome that we’re really measuring is around kindergarten readiness.”

Beyond kindergarten, Jordan says this early childhood education is actually an investment in lifelong education and lifelong success.

“I can’t disconnect from what all this will mean as it rolls into [upper schools and beyond]. All this has connectivity.”

Support for this story was provided in part by the Urban Child Institute; it is one article in a series highlighting the impact and importance of early childhood education.  The Urban Child Institute focuses its grantmaking, advocacy and community support on kindergarten readiness and third-grade literacy in an effort to improve the education, health and well-being of children and families in Shelby County.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.