University of South Florida St. Petersburg Campus



Community Comes Together for Baby Talk Initiative and Listening to Babies Training to Shine a Light on Educational Bias that Starts Early

Adult woman reading a book to a young child.

Data show, and school systems around the country are recognizing, that implicit bias in education not only influences interactions between teachers and students in K-12 schools, but starts in pre-school classrooms and even much earlier. Such assumptions and stereotypes shape teacher expectations, student performance, relationships between the two and school discipline. It can also play a significant role in the educational achievement gap between white and non-white students.

Which is why the 10th anniversary of the Baby Talk initiative and the professional development training known as Listening to Babies will address these concerns of bias and its long-lasting impact.

Organized by the Concerned Organizations for Quality Education of Black Students (COQEBS) and USF St. Petersburg’s Family Study Center, the Listening to Babies event targets a broad audience of professionals who work in education, child welfare and healthcare serving families in Pinellas County to recognize and address these biases. In contrast, Baby Talk is geared towards parents and caregivers to help them better advocate on behalf of their children.

“This year the events of Baby Talk week will shine a light on historical and racial biases that impair our work. It is important to recognize and talk about biases because greater awareness leads us to be more mindful about them in our professional efforts,” said James McHale, director of the Family Study Center. “By bringing the community together to raise awareness and begin tackling these issues during early childhood, we will do a better job of paving the way so all kids can start off right in their school careers.”

Differences in cultures are known to impact how teachers interact with children. Such interactions and unconscious bias towards specific student populations can affect educational performance, resulting in achievement disparities over time. COQEBS, a coalition of community partners and individuals working to ensure quality education for black students in Pinellas County, has been working with school district to address implicit bias in K-12 schools. Conversations are just beginning on even earlier biases.

“There are nuances between cultures that pre-K providers, public school teachers and administrators need to understand in order to have a better relationship with their students, regardless of what background they are coming from,” said Dr. Ricardo (Ric) Davis, president of COQEBS. “We want to work with them while also providing the latest information to parents and care-givers so we can work as a community to eliminate the disparities in educational outcomes.”

“If we don’t have these conversations early on, if we don’t get on the same page, then we lose these kids,” added Twanna Monroe, pre-school educator and director of the Infinite Potential Learning Center.

The focus on early childhood education and ensuring all kids get off to the best start is what launched the initial Baby Talk event 10 years ago. Back then, COQEBS started to focus in on the achievement gap in public schools and disparities in African American children’s kindergarten readiness rates.

They invited the Family Study Center to present on what, at that time, was emerging data about the crucial importance of the first three years of a child’s life for social, emotional and cognitive development.

“As much as 80-85% of lifetime brain development has already been completed by the age of three, and the everyday experiences young children have in their family, in their childcare centers and in their community powerfully shape the brain’s development,” said McHale.
It was this kind of information the coalition wanted to engage the community on and bring greater awareness to the importance of early education.

“The impetus of Baby Talk was always to provide the latest information and have community conversations on early education, child development and the role parents and caregivers can play in maximizing development so less and less go into the school system not ready,” said Davis.

Mom and dad with baby

The first and subsequent Baby Talks informed parents and the community on a wide range of issues, from early brain development to the importance of talking with babies, and from quality floor time to the lasting impact of reading to infants. Each year, the latest child-rearing information for parents and caregivers has been featured, and many related activities and initiatives in support of African American children and families have sprung up in south St. Petersburg and Pinellas County in the years since.

“All parents want the best of their child, irrespective of their circumstances,” said Davis. “But we must understand parent’s situations better, and if need be provide more resources to those who have unique kinds of needs.”

“Families are doing wonderful stuff for their kids already and we need to celebrate what they are doing and bring them additional information that might be interesting and useful to them, “said McHale. “We also know that the parent isn’t solely responsible for the development of a child, that it is the entire community – grandparents, child care professionals, service providers – that helps to support that child.”

Over time, Baby Talk and the work of COQEBS evolved from conversations and building awareness to influencing practices among educators and other professionals who serve families with young children.

Listening to Babies professional training draws attention to the fact that even the youngest infants signal their desires, needs and intentions. The training introduces new ideas about best practices regarding early engagement and enrichment activities for infants and toddlers.

This year’s Baby Talk and Listening to Babies will feature two national experts. Maureen Joseph from New Orleans will address how historical trauma and implicit bias affect professional practices, and how to strengthen culturally-responsive service delivery. Haji Shearer from Boston, a contributor to a Pinellas County fatherhood initiative organized by the Juvenile Welfare Board, will address outreach to and engagement of African American fathers and strategic planning efforts on behalf of families of infants and toddlers.

“This focus on implicit bias will allow us as educators and those working with young children to sit down with others and discuss our own experiences; how we are different, how we are alike and what we need to do better,” said Monroe. “We need to have these conversations in our professions and we need to hear from parents, their concerns and their experiences, so we can all move together with the same goal of how to best educate our students.”

Listening to Babies takes place on Friday, February 21 at Pinellas Technical College from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The 10th annual Baby Talk Celebration takes place on Saturday, February 22 at Pinellas Technical College from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Register for Listening to Babies

Learn more about Family Study Center programs and initiatives.

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