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The real adventure begins now

I promised a second blog to share what I learnt in San Francisco and outline how we might use these insights. In my previous post I talked about 'getting clear' in what we want to achieve. That provocation has sat with me every day since my return.
What is Talking Matters to me? We're a social equity campaign, raising awareness of the importance of early oral language.

We're helping parents, communities, and businesses take specific actions to improve the interactions that Auckland tamariki experience. Why? Because kids who communicate well are happier. They're more likely to experience positive relationships. They're curious. They do better at school and have a better start to life. Researchers have established a clear connection between early brain development and the quality of a child's interaction with a parent or caregiver.

I'm clear that we have two strands: one is about information sharing, and the other is about action. Let's talk about information sharing first.

Almost every public health campaign I saw in California shared slick, professional looking resources that affirm their key messages with families. I admit that, at first, I felt myself recoil, "isn't it a bit didactic?" My fear was that 'key messages' can reduce the beautiful bop of human interaction down to soundbites and bumper stickers. But we become a choir for the converted if we can't communicate our message to new listeners? Conferences force us to share our mahi over and over again. A terrifyingly effective way of refining your message!

On more occasions than I can recall people asked "so what's one thing I could do with my son/daughter/niece/nephew/grandchild to improve those interactions?" "so what could I do to talk more and differently with them?" I had focused on the raising awareness part of our message at the expense of information about how to take action! The two are not mutually exclusive. We need suggestions about what people can do if they want to talk more and differently.

Kara Dukakis, the director of Too Small to Fail: Talking is Teaching, was kind enough to share the morning with us. She talked about some research they conducted in Oakland, California. Focus groups in California revealed that many families fit into one of these areas:
  • Some families don't have access to the information about why talk is important
  • Some have info – but they don't know how to apply it
  • Some have knowledge and skills – but are tired.
"It's hard to think of something to say to him sometimes, especially after a long day."

She talked about their concept of 'surround sound' and saturating the environment with messages and ideas that promote conversations with youngsters. Their theory is, the more frequently people hear and see a message, the more likely it is that they will act on it. This means providing high quality items such as a bag, tee-shirt or blanket that families can use throughout their daily routines. It may also mean working with other organisations, offering support with content development and helping them share messages on objects, like fridge magnets and pens. Kara kindly gave us one of their resource packs to take home and use as inspiration for our project.

The back of the tote bag says: "Talking is teaching. Learning begins at birth. When you talk, read and sing to your child, you build their brain and help them prepare for success in school and in life. But it's not always easy to talk to babies – especially since they can't talk back – so we've made it a little easier by giving you this bag full of cute little things covered with stuff to talk about!"

I showed this pack to families we're working with in Auckland and one of the mothers told me "you know I'm glad that they admit that it's not always easy". Immediately another parent interjected "cuz it's not! Like it's good that they give ideas cuz sometimes I just need a few more ideas".
My initial reaction to quick, soundbite messages softened as I heard parents react positively to the resources. The messages are clear and the items have value. The advice from Tony Bryk that I shared in my last post is relevant here: connect our messages to things that parents already believe in, know and do. He also suggested we use language like: you might wanna try, you could think about, we're trying to figure out. This acknowledges that we don't have the answers, but we can come up with ideas together. I will share two other pieces of astute advice that he shared: "Be humble about what it is that you actually know" "Don't just hypothesise with experts – engage with people actually involved!"

Taking Tony's advice, I asked a small group of parents, who are currently using the LENA (language pedometer) vests: "we're trying to figure out what's the best way to encourage parents to talk more and talk differently with their kids. Do you share what you've learned with your friends?" I was assuming that they hadn't at all. I was wrong. They recalled conversations they'd had about Talking Matters with friends and family, what advice they found useful – and also things they didn't like.

I asked if resources that share our messages would be helpful. The mothers told me that they might be, depending on the purpose. I was suddenly feeling very humble about what I actually knew!

They're currently developing tie dye tee-shirts that will have the message "did you know I am always listening and learning from you" printed on them. The hypothesis is that when the children wear them, the mothers will be reminded to talk more. The unique colours and shapes on the tee may inspire conversation. They are also testing other ideas for items that can stimulate conversation with children and share the message of talk for parents and caregivers. It's an absolute pleasure working with these parents. Watch this space for more.