Improving the Communication Skills of Infants and Young Children

Child and teacher interacting with book in a classroom at the Juniper Gardens Children's Project

Using data to inform decisions or next steps isn’t just the bedrock of boardrooms and business. A team of University of Kansas researchers has shown that it’s also the foundation for improving the language development and communication skills of infants and toddlers.

Researchers from the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project, a part of the KU Life Span Institute, studied 214 families in Kansas and three other states who received home visits from social workers, therapists, and other professionals. The study determined how the use of a web application developed at Juniper could affect children’s communication and outcomes.

The results, published in the journal Exceptional Children, described the impact of using the Making Online Decisions (MOD) app to guide the coaching and strategies that could be provided to parents during home visits. The study showed that using MOD led to substantially greater language growth for children compared to those whose providers didn’t use the MOD. Those effects nearly doubled 12 months after using the MOD.

Jay Buzhardt, principal investigator for the project, said that MOD uses data from the Early Communication Indicator, or ECI, administered by childcare providers to help them determine if a child would benefit from additional language support. If the assessment shows that the child is below a benchmark for the child’s age, the MOD offers strategies individualized to the child’s needs that parents can use to improve the child’s communication skills.

"For example, a child who may be performing fine on gestures and vocalizations – those prelinguistic areas – but who is struggling with changing those vocalizations to words, MOD offers strategies to the provider that can help the parent talk more with the child and encourage more words," Buzhardt said.

Home visitor and child interacting with a toy on the floor

Building on Previous Research 

MOD capitalizes on several tools developed at Juniper Gardens. They include a set of 6-minute play-based assessments known as the Individual Growth and Development Indicators, or IGDIs, for infants and toddlers, which are used internationally to evaluate four areas of child development: communication, cognitive problem solving, movement, and social skills. The Early Communication Indicator is one of those assessments.

Additionally, the strategies that MOD offers were also researched and developed by KU researchers Dale Walker and Kathryn Bigelow and their team at Juniper Gardens. That research, Promoting Communication Tools for Advancing Language in Kids, or PC TALK, are strategies for using everyday opportunities in the home or in a classroom setting for language learning and communication development.

Nicole Torneden, a Children's Services early childhood special education teacher at TARC, Inc., in Shawnee County, said she has seen how entering and applying data with MOD can be validating to parents and to teachers in Early Head Start classrooms.

Torneden recently conducted an evaluation of a child’s development over Zoom.

"The family was interested in what the testing was about and what the data might mean," Torneden said. "I was able to plug in the data and share my screen to show the child’s progress. For some parents, it’s very validating to bring in that data and say, 'look where he was and where he is today.'"

MOD also helps Torneden advise classroom teachers on effective strategies to improve communication skills in young children because early childhood teachers bring a variety of skills to the classroom.

"All teachers can benefit from the guidance and strategies," she said.

State-wide Implementation and Beyond 

Ultimately using MOD can help provide intervention suggestions that save time, Buzhardt said. In some areas of Kansas, for example, early intervention providers travel hundreds of miles annually across several counties to conduct home visits with families.

"In some cases, they’re traveling 20 miles to visit one child and parent, and provide them services for two hours every two weeks," Buzhardt said. "With the MOD, they’re able to get some powerful effects and use them with fidelity."

Additionally, the web app can bring consistency to the process of tracking children’s progress, which can be affected by varying providers and environments.

The next horizon for the research team is to further test MOD in several additional states and to be able to customize the MOD to accommodate the broad array of infant-toddler services available in the U.S. and other countries.


Image credits: KU Life Span Institute

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