Promoting early childhood language development: Virginia Beach, VA
- Preparing children for kindergarten: Evidence-based early childhood curricula and interventions are designed to help young children develop a wide range of skills that will better position them to succeed in elementary school and beyond. Many curricula and interventions are integrated into a child care center or preschool’s daily routines, though some may also include at-home activities. Typically, programming is divided by age: 0-2 (infants and toddlers) and 3-4 (preschoolers).
- Developing children’s learning skills: There is significant variance in the breadth and depth of evidence-based curricula and interventions; some are comprehensive, covering everything from academics to problem-solving to social-emotional learning. Others, which may supplement a broader curriculum or be delivered in tandem with other interventions, focus on a specific subject area, like literacy or numbers. Many models embed significant flexibility, allowing them to be delivered in half- or full-day programs.
- Playing and learning: Evidence-based curricula and interventions are delivered through a range of methods, including teacher-led content lessons, interactive software programs, and more. One increasingly common, evidence-based approach to skill-building is through play-based learning. Broadly, learning through play can take two forms: child-directed and teacher-guided. For instance, children may be encouraged to explore their creativity and interpersonal skills by playing with blocks; after a certain period, a teacher may add some structured learning to the activity, such as asking children to count the number of blocks or to describe what they are building.
- Providing training and classroom materials: Many curricula and interventions offer direct training from program staff or online modules to prepare teachers to deliver the model. This is often supplemented with professional development workshops, coaching and mentorship opportunities with curriculum experts, and access to peer communities of practice. In some cases, teachers may also become certified or accredited in specific curricula or intervention models.
- Offering individual and group learning: Evidence-based early childhood curricula can be delivered in three settings: with individual students, small groups, or an entire class. Comprehensive curricula often include programming for all three. Many curricula also supplement in-school learning with home-based activities to be delivered by a parent or caregiver.
Two program-based systematic reviews and one general meta-analysis demonstrate that evidence-based and skills-focused curricula and interventions improve a variety of school readiness outcomes, including social-emotional skills, language and print knowledge, cognitive abilities, and pre-academic skills.
A 2020 meta-analysis of early childhood education programs found that skill-based curricula improved school readiness, especially cognitive abilities and pre-academic skills. Smaller but significant effects were found on behavioral, health, and social-emotional outcomes.
A 2013 systematic review found that Doors to Discovery, a preschool curriculum that focuses on literacy, was associated with significant improvements in print knowledge and oral language.
- A 2010 systematic review found that Literacy Express, a preschool curriculum for 3-5 year olds, is associated with significant improvements in oral language, print knowledge, and phonological processing.
Results & accomplishments
families have participated in a Virginia Beach Talks program as of December 2022, with 738 in the Grow program, 349 in the Start program, and 41 in the Home program.
Early program data show that children who were identified as lagging behind their peers showed a 75 percent increase in conversational turns per hour after beginning in the LENA Grow program.
Major increases in talking among children with low “talk rates:" Virginia Beach Talks aims to increase the number of back-and-forth verbal interactions between children and adults in order to improve children’s cognitive and language development. The program observed increases in language use among the majority of participating children, but the most striking results came from the students who had been identified as lagging behind their peers prior to participating in the program. These children saw a 75 percent increase in conversational turns per hour compared to when they began in the LENA Grow program.
Survey results indicating improvements for teachers: In a 2021 survey of 41 teachers before and after using LENA talk pedometers and programs, teachers reported increased job-satisfaction, self-efficacy, and rates of beliefs and actions that support equitable language development.
Winning national reading program awards: The city of Virginia Beach received the National Pacesetter Honors, an award given by the National Campaign for Grade Level Reading. The award recognized all three Virginia Beach Talks programs (LENA Start, LENA Home, and LENA Grow) for supporting the healthy development and kindergarten readiness of young children. The city also won an additional Pacesetter award for its work engaging parents and children virtually during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dramatic improvements to parents' child-rearing routines: Throughout the implementation of Virginia Beach Talks, ground-level staff spoke with families about how the program affected their routines at home. The staff heard from many families who dramatically changed their routines in ways that benefited cognitive and language development.
While nearly 90 percent of children in Virginia Beach were entering school “kindergarten ready,” the remaining ten percent continued to start school below academic benchmarks. These students were disproportionately from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, with kindergarten readiness being eight percentage points lower than the average. Local leaders began searching for a strategy to boost kindergarten readiness and close the achievement gap.
In 2017, local government officials launched Virginia Beach Talks, a program designed to support language development among young children. The program trains caregivers and early educators to use devices called “talk pedometers” to capture the number of back-and-forth verbal interactions between children and adults. By increasing the number of conversational turns between children and adults, Virginia Beach Talks aims to increase children's cognitive, social, and emotional development.
Keys to the program’s success include having a dedicated team focused on early childhood development, dedication to data collection and program evaluation, strong collaboration across city departments, and a high level of buy-in from staff implementing the program.
Challenges the program faced included a delayed launch due to COVID-19, difficulty managing implementation across varied settings, and apprehension from parents about the use of recording devices.
What was the challenge?
Many children entering school without being “kindergarten ready:” After years of efforts to strengthen early childhood education, Virginia Beach was able to steadily increase the percentage of children entering kindergarten ready to learn. By 2017, the kindergarten readiness rate was 90 percent, as measured by a phonological literacy screener. Despite this progress, nearly 10 percent of children continued to enter kindergarten behind benchmarks. Local leaders believed that new strategies were needed to reach these children and better equip them for primary education.
Significant and widening achievement gaps in kindergarten readiness: Assessments during the 2016-2017 school year showed that only about 84 percent of economically disadvantaged students were meeting their academic benchmarks, compared to the overall rate of about 90 percent. In the following two academic years, this gap in kindergarten readiness grew, with disadvantaged students’ readiness rate falling to about 82 percent.
Wide variation in child care program quality: Among Virginia Beach’s hundreds of childcare programs, quality varied significantly. Local leaders believed if we could strengthen early learning environments for young children we could increase their school readiness. In some cases, childcare providers identified children for early intervention, but in many cases, children who had fallen behind did not receive any additional support. To reach these children before they entered the school system, city leaders sought ways to provide additional support in the full range of childcare settings: in homes, schools and child care centers, libraries, parks and recreation centers, and more.
COVID further isolates children at risk of poor educational outcomes: The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic increased the city’s sense of urgency to address the challenges facing children in the early stages of development. As the pandemic progressed, the city was observing drastic declines in kindergarten literacy screening results and was eager to find ways to support the development of the city’s young children.
What was the solution?
A childhood development program to increase conversation and early learning: Virginia Beach Talks trains early childhood educators and caregivers to increase conversation and language development among young children. To do this, the program trains caregivers and early educators to use devices called “talk pedometers” to capture the number of back-and-forth verbal interactions between children and adults, known as “conversational turns.” Increasing the number of conversational turns between children and supportive adults, even among babies who are not yet forming words, leads to increased cognitive, social, and emotional development.
Teachers, childcare workers, and city staff implementing the program throughout early childhood development settings: Virginia Beach Talks is led by city staff who support early childhood development. The city’s first implementation, LENA Start, was implemented by GrowSmart staff in city-run recreation centers. To expand into child care and home settings, the city trained individuals who interact and support children on a daily basis. Today, the city operates the Virginia Beach Talks program in three settings: at home or in small group settings with parents (LENA Start), at home with home visiting support workers (LENA Home), and at school and child care with early childhood educators (LENA Grow).
Training and professional development for program staff: The Virginia Beach Talks program includes training, support, and educational materials for caregiving adults to ensure that they implement LENA technology and its curricula with fidelity. The training includes meetings with program staff to walk through the philosophy and science of the program, how to use the materials, and the purpose of each session in the curriculum. In later meetings, the program staff and parents or caregivers reflect on successes and discuss opportunities to further language development.
A central team focused on overseeing training and implementation for program staff: Virginia Beach Talks was launched from and is managed by the city’s VBGrowSmart unit, which is housed in the Department of Economic Development. VBGrowSmart has one lead coordinator, Barbara Lito, who oversaw the process of planning the program’s launch, applying for grant funding, collaborating with relevant city departments, and managing the day-to-day implementation of the program.
Borrowing from a promising model: Virginia Beach Talks was inspired by Providence Talks, a similar program operated in Providence, Rhode Island. As part of the What Works Cities program, Bloomberg Philanthropies invited VBGrowSmart representatives to Providence to learn about the program’s successes and supported Virginia Beach in developing their own version of the program.
What factors drove success?
A team dedicated to early child development to advance the program: Virginia Beach Talks was launched from the VBGrowSmart team, which is part of the Department of Economic Development. Under Barbara Lito’s leadership, the VBGrowSmart team conducted long-term planning and quickly led the adaptations required upon the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also led the early partnership building across departments.
Using data to build support: In early discussions of Virginia Beach Talks, data on the program’s success in other cities helped make the case to the mayor and city manager that the program would be effective. Later on, the continuous collection of data showing that LENA programs increased the frequency of conversational turns has allowed support for Virginia Beach’s effort to grow over time.
Cross-departmental collaboration: Every month, cross-departmental team members have a recurring meeting to discuss ongoing programs and further opportunities for collaboration. The city manager and department leadership encourages and supports this regular cross-department collaboration. Because Virginia Beach Talks operates in schools and child care programs, homes, libraries, and recreation centers, it has been crucial for the program to receive approval and support from city leadership, as well as the heads of the library system and the health and parks and recreation departments.
Buy-in from the ground level: Staff who oversee Virginia Beach Talks feel that success would not have been possible without the enthusiastic buy-in from the ground-level staff who implement the program. Partners were eager to utilize new tools for reading and language development and work closely with early educators and staff to try new activities, songs, and strategies. In the library, parks and recreation, and health and human services departments, the idea of Virginia Beach Talks was well received by the staff who manage the implementation of their programs.
Ongoing data collection to monitor progress and address deficiencies: In addition to tracking conversational turns between individual children and adults, the LENA talk pedometers automatically collect and aggregate that data at the home, child care setting, classroom, and school level. This means that program leaders can monitor progress and provide additional support to early education and child care settings that may be running into challenges, and identify opportunities to learn from settings where performance is exceptionally high.
What were the major obstacles?
COVID causing launch delays: In the early days of Virginia Beach Talks, everything was implemented in person — in homes, at school/child care, and in community centers. The VBGrowSmart team had a “playbook” that they followed for recruiting families and training staff who would implement the technology face-to-face. Once the pandemic hit, all the previous practices had to be discarded and replaced with new, virtual approaches. To do this, the team developed new orientation and training practices that could occur online.
Indirect project management across varied settings: Because Virginia Beach Talks operates in settings like parks and recreation centers, libraries, homes, and childcare centers, there is tremendous variation in the environments in which the program is implemented. While some locations were highly prepared, others were stretched thin with limited resources to put the programs into practice right away. The city found that it could be challenging to manage all of these settings and provide the support they needed to implement the program with fidelity.
Parent apprehension around the use of recording devices: Staff have found that as soon as they say “recording,” parents understandably get nervous. Therefore, staff had to be intentional and use words like “talk pedometer” in initial communication about the program. They also put considerable time into answering parents and other adults’ questions about what is being recorded and what is not. Staff demonstrated that the device simply records the occurrence of speech, but it is impossible to hear individual words. Sometimes, this process entailed sitting down with parents or early educators to show them what the talk pedometer captures and what the feedback reports look like.
VBGrowSmart was born out of a partnership between the city’s public libraries and Department of Health. The program would be led by a full-time GrowSmart Coordinator and focus on early childhood education and social/emotional development.
As the city continued to recognize the importance of early childhood development to long-term economic outcomes, the city moved the VBGrowSmart program to be housed in the Department of Economic Development.
The city of Providence, Rhode Island launches the program after running a successful pilot and winning the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors’ Challenge. The city was awarded $5 million in philanthropic funds to expand the program and partner with researchers at Brown University to study its effectiveness.
As momentum for the city’s early childhood development program grew, civic leaders founded the Virginia Beach GrowSmart Foundation, a non-profit foundation formed to support the VBGrowSmart office and its early childhood development programs.
Bloomberg Philanthropies invites Virginia Beach officials to a conference in Providence to learn about the promising results of the city’s implementation of LENA programs, called “Providence Talks.” Inspired by the results, Virginia Beach launches Virginia Beach Talks as a pilot. Under the program, parents of children ages 0-3 met weekly with program facilitators to receive training and feedback on their use of talk pedometers and language-development strategies.
In a regular cross departmental meeting, Barbara Lito, the VBGrowSmart Coordinator, alerted the city to the opportunity to apply for a Bloomberg grant to expand Virginia Beach Talks. The department heads agreed that the opportunity was a good fit for the city and affirmed their commitment to give the program their departments’ backing.
Virginia Beach is one of five cities awarded funding under the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities program. The grant included $448,000 over three years to support the city’s creation of the LENA Grow program, which operates in schools and child care programs, and LENA Home, which operates in homes.
Upon the arrival of COVID-19, the city moved most of the training and implementation of Virginia Beach Talks online. By the end of the first year of operations since expanding with the support of philanthropic funding, the city had reached more than 200 families in its combined three programs of LENA Grow, Start, and Home.
With COVID vaccines and guidelines becoming available, Virginia Beach resumed in-person programming and expansion.
Virginia Beach recruited and hired four part-time coaches for the GROW and START programs. These coaches are fully dedicated to outreach, recruitment, and supporting parents and childcare workers. By focusing solely on Virginia Beach Talks, these staff have allowed the city to scale the programs, reaching 738 families in the GROW program and 349 families in START, and 41 families with HOME as of December 2022.
How did leaders confront the problem?
City leaders recognize a significant portion of children are not “kindergarten ready:” During the 2018-2019 academic year, cross-sector leaders involved in VBGrowSmart were reviewing data on the city’s children’s kindergarten readiness scores. While the city’s overall kindergarten readiness rate was near 90 percent, leaders recognized a widening achievement gap along socioeconomic lines. Assistant City Manager Taylor Adams, then the Director of Economic Development, was one of the leaders who expressed interest in expanding efforts in early childhood development programs.
Early childhood program leaders explore further investments in early education: Reviewing the kindergarten readiness data, the VBGrowSmart team met with its Policy Board and Deputy City Managers to discuss remedies. All agreed that the city should invest in a focused early childhood development program that could serve children ages 0-5 in Virginia Beach who were entering Kindergarten underprepared. Building on a prior engagement, Bloomberg Philanthropies invited Virginia Beach officials to learn about “Providence Talks,” the LENA program in Providence, Rhode Island, and the VBGrowSmart team agreed that the program would likely be a good fit for Virginia Beach.
City leaders commit to small-scale replication of Providence Talks program: The city’s visit to Providence generated discussion with the LENA organization and Bloomberg Philanthropies on how it might be replicated in Virginia Beach. The VBGrowSmart Coordinator, Barbara Lito, spearheaded this effort, ultimately deciding that the city should try a version of Providence Talks in Virginia Beach by launching a small pilot of LENA Start, a parent-focused LENA program.
How was the strategy designed?
Talk pedometers to help adults improve the auditory language environment: Recognizing that frequency of conversation between adults and children is an indicator of linguistic and cognitive development, Virginia Beach Talks uses a “talk pedometer” to track and encourage interactive talk between young children and adults. By increasing the frequency of active conversation between children from birth to three years old and adults, this technology has been shown to support cognitive, social, and emotional development that increases the likelihood of positive long-term educational and economic outcomes.
Starting with families of children ages 0-3 years first: The VBGrowSmart office launched Virginia Beach Talks in the area with the highest need: families with children ages 0-3 years of age. Since only 20-25 percent of Virginia Beach’s children attend public Pre-K programs, the majority of children spend their daytime in child care centers or at home. LENA Start was an opportunity to create a more language-rich environment for children at home and support their healthy development. This program is implemented by parents, who choose a single “LENA Day” per week on which their child wears a LENA vest and engages in language-learning activities.
Expanding into three distinct programs to reach children in more learning environments: Recognizing that children have the opportunity to practice language and learning in any environment, Virginia Beach expanded the Virginia Beach Talks program into three settings: at home with parents (LENA Start), at home with care workers (LENA Home), and at school/child care with early educators (LENA Grow). Each program involves training, support, and educational materials for caregiving adults to ensure that they implement LENA technology and its curricula with fidelity. By deploying talk pedometers and the LENA curriculum in each of these settings, Virginia Beach would reach as many children as possible during key stages of linguistic and cognitive development.
Data collection and feedback to support continuous improvement: Recognizing that childhood development strategies are not intuitive or familiar to many parents, LENA technology’s data provides feedback to parents and early educators on their language environment and helps set goals for interactive speech with the children under their care. It can also provide data at the classroom level to analyze the frequency of interactive speech in different classrooms, allowing educators the opportunity to identify areas for improvement. Data collection happens automatically while teachers, parents, and children go about their normal daily routines.
How was the plan implemented?
Securing key partnerships and funding for a pilot launch: The city used a combination of public-private partnerships, philanthropic support, and public resources to launch a small-scale version of LENA Start. The city first reached out to the United Way of South Hampton Roads for philanthropic support for operational expenses. The city also secured support from the LENA Organization, who had matching funds for cities who were implementing LENA programs. Finally, the city repurposed public funding allocated to support kindergarten readiness to support launching the program and to support a pilot of LENA START.
Early outreach to find participating families: The next step was to find families who would benefit from the program. The city started by reaching out to community partners who worked with families and could refer them to Virginia Beach Talks. They also spoke with the team who administers Head Start, the city’s health department, and the office that administers the city’s WIC resources (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children).
Securing space to hold the first LENA classes: The VBGrowSmart team then had to secure space to introduce families to the program, teach them the program’s approach, and show them how to use the equipment. To do this cost-effectively, the team secured city partners who could provide space in-kind. The first LENA class was held at one of the Parks and Recreation Department’s recreation centers.
Applying for funding to launch all three LENA programs: With preliminary results from LENA START in hand, the VBGrowSmart team then turned its sights on launching the full range of LENA programs in homes and childcare centers. At a meeting of the city’s department heads, Barbara Lito, the VBGrowSmart coordinator, proposed that Virginia Beach apply for philanthropic support to replicate Providence Talks. With the full support of city leaders, VBGrowSmart submitted its application for the What Works Cities grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to do so.
Monthly meetings to plan and recruit: Upon being selected as a replication site through What Works Cities, the VBGrowthSmart team began using its monthly cross-departmental meetings to plan the launch of LENA programs. This involved setting up training, marketing, outreach, and recruitment of families,
Nearly two hundred families reached in the first year: After one year of running all three programs, Virginia Beach had reached 189 families through their three programs, LENA Grow, LENA Home, and LENA Start. Though short of pre-COVID targets, this represented a substantial launch that could be built upon as the city adapted delivery to the COVID era.
How was the approach funded?
Public funding for initial launch and continued support: In order to launch the pilot, the city used existing funds that had already been allocated to improve kindergarten readiness, along with funding from United Way of South Hampton Roads, to support its initial goal of reaching 50 families in the pilot of LENA START. City leaders also leveraged existing resources by embedding this into current services with staff who were already engaged in supporting young children. Initial Virginia Beach Talks partners included childrens’ librarians, pre-K teachers, and childcare professional development and early childhood staff within the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Matching grant funding from LENA for general program support: The national nonprofit organization which developed the talk pedometers and curriculum, LENA, makes grant funding available to cities who implement LENA-based programs like Virginia Beach Talks. Virginia Beach received $40,000 in matching grant funds to support the launch of the program in 2017.
Philanthropic funding for meals and incentives: In the early days of the city’s LENA programs, United Way of South Hampton Roads provided $34,350 for the initial launch costs as well as meals and incentives for START families during the pilot launch. The city had worked with United Way in the wake of recent flooding events, a mass shooting in May of 2019, and on COVID relief in the spring of 2020.
Philanthropic funding to launch and expand LENA programs: In 2019, Bloomberg Philanthropies provided a grant of $448,000 for three years of replication of the Providence Talks program with the support of What Works Cities. This funded the launch of the GROW program and important expenses such as marketing and supplies such as tablets.
How was the approach measured and refined?
Building in independent evaluation: Virginia Beach has a partnership with Old Dominion University to evaluate the LENA Programs’ success. In addition to conducting evaluations, the university provides feedback on GROW through teacher surveys. The university is currently interviewing GROW participants and conducting follow-up interviews to assess what practices have endured over the long term.
Adaptation through time: The talk pedometers developed by LENA not only track the number of conversational turns taken by any given child, but also aggregate that data so that program leaders can see the overall rate of conversation in any given classroom, program, or learning environment. Virginia Beach Talks leverages this data to understand where the program is succeeding and where it could be improved.
Developing strategies to encourage use of the technology: Across all programs, VB Talks staff has encountered children who don’t want to wear the vest with the device that tracks their conversational turns. The vest is specially designed to capture the child’s vocalizations and it is important for the children to wear the vest to get the individualized feedback reports. LENA has found it helpful to encourage teachers to create a special day or event around the vests during which the children can decorate and personalize them. Some teachers have done a superhero day to iron on patches, or use fabric paints or other materials. This has helped ensure that children are happy to wear the vests.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their support in writing this case study: Barbara Lito, Michael Kirshman, Matthew Haddox, Amanda Caton, Brandi Mezzapeso, and Caitlin Pedati.
This case study was written by Jonathan Timm and Ross Tilchin.