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A Few Lessons Learned From Our Talking is Teaching Campaign

My first week as Senior Manager of the Cities Strategy for Too Small to Fail in July 2014, was a whirlwind of activity and exciting news. We announced our community campaign in Oakland, California. We also identified a new community campaign strategy to train trusted local messengers like pediatricians, faith-based leaders, and librarians to deliver messages and tools directly to parents to help them boost their children’s early brain development. Soon after, we forged new partnerships with business leaders and media companies, and even co-hosted a conference at the White House to share new research and best practices with communities eager to close the word gap.

Needless to say, my first year with Too Small to Fail has been action-packed, and I’m grateful to strong colleagues and friends for their help along the way!

As we’ve worked with our partners to fine tune our community campaign in Tulsa, Oklahoma and in Oakland, we’ve learned valuable lessons about how to best reach parents and cargegivers to encourage them to talk, read, sing and bond as much as possible with their children starting at birth. Our new campaign guide, titled “Talking is Teaching Community Campaign Guide,” aims to share these lessons – as well as other valuable resources – with communities that would like to begin, or enhance, their own word gap campaigns.

For example, one lesson we’ve learned in focus groups is that while parents understand that they influence their children’s early learning, they often underestimate (or sometimes, don’t believe) the idea that they are their children’s first teachers. To some parents, the word “teacher” means a person who shares knowledge with children only in a classroom setting.

But science tells us that parents are children’s first teachers, so we are working to re-frame the notion of “teacher,” especially for your children, as someone with enormous positive influence on a child’s whole development, regardless of setting or training. As we explain in our Guide, children who engage in more meaningful interactions with parents or caregivers in nurturing environments during the first years of life not only learn more words, but also develop better social, emotional and cognitive skills, which are critical to their overall health and well-being.

Another valuable lesson we’ve learned from work in Tulsa and Oakland is that an effective campaign incorporates several approaches simultaneously. For example, using trusted local messengers is a great way to quickly and effectively reach parents and caregivers with information. Many of these trusted messengers are already working on these issues—like pediatricians who are active in local Reach Out and Read programs – and are therefore very likely to want to link up with new efforts to improve children’s early brain development. Using a strategic paid media campaign can amplify the information passed on by trusted messengers, but should not be the only source of information for parents and caregivers. Billboards, bus shelter ads and even radio or television advertising has the advantage of reaching many people at once, but does not necessarily inspire them to increase the frequency or quality of interactions with their young children. Effective behavior change campaigns use a combination of hands-on communication and education with a broader public awareness effort.  This is why we use “public awareness and action campaign” to describe our efforts.

I hope that communities across the country will take a close look at our Community Campaign Guide and other new materials, and find them useful in their own local campaigns to close the word gap. We’ve come a long way in just one short year of Too Small to Fail community campaigns in Tulsa and Oakland, and we know we still have a long way to go to meet our goal of helping parents and communities improve the early brain development – and overall outcomes – of all our nation’s children. As I prepare to take on a new role as Director of Too Small to Fail for Next Generation, I look forward to learning and sharing even more on this exciting journey.

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