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Hemispheres of the brain front view

The discrepancies in vocabulary development between children in adverse circumstances and whose early childhood is spent within a more protective environment is well known. At age three, children growing up in financially secure families characterized by secure attachment relationships typically have 30 million more words than peers raised in home environments where economic instability and/or attachment failures influence the verbal interactions between caregivers and their children. As children continue to grow, so does the vocabulary gap, so that by Kindergarten, there is a two year difference on standardized language tests between these two groups of children.

Without question, this vocabulary deficit contributes to the achievement gap observed between children raised in adverse circumstances. But vocabulary is not the only language problem involved.  Another involves the role language plays in the integration of the right and left hemispheres.

The right hemisphere is very active in early childhood, absorbing bodily sensations, reactions to early interactions with caregivers, and strong emotions that can at times feel overwhelming. Caregivers who teach children words to describe or name their feelings help develop the left hemisphere’s capacity to label right hemisphere data. Once the left hemisphere comes on line, children are able to sort, select, and sequence the experiences of their inner lives into a coherent narrative.

Children whose caregivers are unaware of language’s regulating function often fail to link words and experiences. As a result the right and left hemispheres are unable to work together to manage and explain the emotional flow of the right hemisphere.  This integration failure is the cause of much of the emotional dysregulation and disruptive behavior observed in many low achieving children.

Correcting this language problem among children requires more than word banks and vocabulary drill. It requires forming collaborative relationships with them. These provide the safety needed to explore one’s inner landscape, and name one’s inner demons. Only then can children control the emotions that threaten their academic and social success.

Dana Susskind, founder of the Thirty Million Words Initiative recommends frequent use of the “3 Ts”:

  • Tune in to what children are trying to communicate, especially about their internal states.
  • Talk more using descriptive words and phrases that increase the capacity of the left hemisphere to label right hemisphere data.
  • Take turns sharing thoughts and feelings about everyday activities.

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