When parents are supported to read and play children are more ready for school
The Sector > Research > When parents are supported to read and play children are more ready for school

When parents are supported to read and play children are more ready for school

by Freya Lucas

December 27, 2022

When parents are guided to read and play with their babies, they are more tuned in to their cognitive development by the time the children turn two years old, which in turn leads to improved school readiness by the age of four years, new research from NYU Grossman School of Medicine; NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development; and the University of Pittsburgh has shown. 


The new study evaluated the effects of a parental education and support program developed by the researchers, known as Smart Beginnings, for primarily Black and Hispanic children growing up in low-income and under-resourced communities. Smart Beginnings is an integration of two programs – Video Interaction Project (VIP) and the Family Check-Up (FCU), and builds on previous studies which have shown that children in minoritized, low-income families are more likely to have behavioural problems, such as hyperactivity from prolonged toxic stress, and to perform more poorly in school.


For the study, 403 newborns in New York and Pittsburgh were voluntarily enrolled by their mothers, with half randomly assigned to receive Smart Beginnings while the rest received standard pediatric primary care. Most of the mothers were married or had a live-in partner, and all were eligible for Medicaid. Almost all were Black or Hispanic.


As part of the VIP component of Smart Beginnings, mothers were videotaped with their infants for three to five minutes during routine monthly check-ups as they played with a new toy such as cars or black and white patterned blocks. A trained coach encouraged interaction as they played. Mothers took home the videotape and educational pamphlets and were encouraged to repeat the playtime at home. As the children got older, books were also given to the parents to read to the children. 


In the FCU component of Smart Beginnings, at the six-month mark, the reading and playtime activities were followed up by a visit with a social worker at home or at the well-child clinic for families that had additional family management issues or child behaviour problems. Lasting as long as two hours, these conversational sessions were designed to screen for signs of family problems such as symptoms of depression in the mother, evidence of family violence, and lack of food. Counseling and government services were offered as needed. The social worker conducted another in-depth visit a year later.


During an analysis of the program, researchers found that by two years of age, scores for parents of 203 children who were randomly assigned to receive Smart Beginnings were significantly higher among three broad survey and observational measures of cognitive development and the home environment compared with scores of parents for 200 children who had been randomly chosen to receive standard pediatric primary care. This group receiving standard care still went for monthly visits to the pediatrician but did not receive any videotaped play and coaching, nor any sessions with a social worker.


“Our study adds to the evidence that positively stimulating cognitive development from infancy to toddlerhood through coaching of parents and home visits that encourage play and reading can dramatically improve the child-parent relationship, and shape the child’s social, emotional, and academic development later in life,” lead investigator Dr Elizabeth B. Miller said.


“Programs such as Smart Beginnings can possibly help reduce the disparities in early childhood development that disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic children in America,” she added.


The cost of the program is around one-tenth the cost of other interventional programs with similar goals, making it an affordable and effective alternative. To access the findings of the study please see here

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