Here’s Looking At You, Kid

By Linda Jacobson — October 01, 2000 8 min read

Ten years ago, more than 1,000 newborn babies at hospitals in 10 cities across America were enrolled in a federally backed study like no other. It was to be an exhaustive investigation of children’s development, and it promised to put childhood events—big and small—under the microscope.

When the infants were 1 month old, researchers affiliated with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development began a series of regular home visits, taking note of books in the house, observing the developing mother- child relationship, and even recording the number of ear infections. During these visits, which lasted up to two hours and continued until the children were 4½, parents and kids, and sometimes siblings, were asked to play games or do activities together. Occasionally, the children were brought to research labs for cognitive testing.

Once the children began school, the researchers broadened their investigation to include each child’s classroom environment. Once a year, the NICHD researchers followed the children through a typical school day. Were they engaged in classes? What were their friends like? Did they respond more to basic-skills lessons or higher-thinking exercises? Teachers and principals, meanwhile, were peppered with lengthy surveys about their credentials and the schools’ instructional programs and demographics. Earlier this year, the children were even asked to wear a small device around their waists for a week to measure their physical activity.

All this, it’s hoped, will lead to revolutionary findings. Initially, the $10 million-a-year study aimed to examine the children’s first three years to determine how infant and toddler experiences affect development and academic performance later in life. “Education doesn’t start at kindergarten,” says Sarah Friedman, the project’s scientific coordinator. “It starts from day one.”

Since the study’s launch, however, it has been extended to track the sample of children, now entering 4th grade, for at least the next three years. There’s even talk of following the kids into high school. “Every year this goes on, it becomes more of a national treasure,” says Susan Dell, a coordinator for one of the 10 study sites, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “We have things that no one else has.”

Such research is relatively virgin territory. In 1962, Lawrence Schweinhart and David Weikert of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation began a long-range study of 123 low-income African American children—a very small sample. Some of the children attended the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan, but the researchers also assembled a control group of children who did not attend preschool. They followed all these kids through age 27, tracking their school performance, their success in marriage, their economic status, and even their arrest records. Overall, children in the preschool program fared better than the control group: They earned more money as adults and had fewer run-ins with the law, and they were more likely to graduate from high school, stay married longer, and own a home. They were also less likely to end up on welfare or receive other social services.

A second study, begun in 1993 and known as the “Cost, Quality, and Outcomes Study,” looked at 826 children in child-care centers in four states. Following up with about half these kids when they reached 2nd grade, the researchers found that those who had received better child care as preschoolers were having greater success in school. Specifically, children who had attended centers with superior classroom practices had better language and math skills than the others. Children who had close relationships with their child-care teachers also were better-behaved and more sociable in elementary school than those who did not.

Though these two studies are influential in debates about government funding for early childhood education, neither looked at children before they were at least 3 years old. The NIHCD research, by contrast, began only hours after the children were born. Thirty-three investigators—education professors, psychologists, and child behaviorists—from 14 universities were selected to observe 1,364 children in Charlottesville, Virginia; Irvine, California; Lawrence, Kansas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Madison, Wisconsin; Morganton, North Carolina; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Seattle; and Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Some early findings of the study were released in 1997 to great media stir. Hoping to soothe the guilty feelings of working mothers, parenting magazines played up the conclusion that a mother’s relationship with her baby influences the child’s development more than whether or not the child is in day care. The research also suggests that high-quality child care—with low child-adult ratios; trained caregivers; and a safe, stimulating environment—might even be better for a child’s cognitive and language development than care provided exclusively by the mother. Conservatives, meanwhile, seized on other evidence that points to the benefits of stay-at-home moms. The researchers, for example, found that children who spend more time in child care than others during the first three years of life have less-positive interactions with their mothers.

Sometime in the next year, NICHD plans to release the first data about the school performance of the study’s children. Frederick Morrison, a project researcher and psychology professor at Loyola University of Chicago, hopes to pinpoint how a child’s early experiences in the home affect literacy. Meanwhile, Robert Pianta, an education professor at the University of Virginia, expects the findings will identify school experiences—including kids’ relationships with teachers—that influence children’s development. Ultimately, he says, the research may challenge traditional school practices regarding student placement and special education. “It will certainly provide a different perspective on what we think we can predict,” Pianta says.

Some critics of the study are skeptical about the data it will yield. Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, says poor and minority children are underrepresented in the NIHCD sample. Of the 1,100 children, 341 are members of racial or ethnic minorities, and about a third are poor. “People have known for a long time that it is somewhat a convenient sample,” Fuller contends. “It was driven by where the researchers live and work.”

NICHD investigators acknowledge their sample is not nationally representative. Families were excluded from the study if they did not speak English or if they lived more than an hour from a lab site. But the study has provided much information on the child care of poor children. And Friedman argues that NICHD’s work is an improvement over previous developmental psychology research that studied as few as 60 or 70 kids. “Science moves in very small steps,” she says. “Every generation of studies is an improvement over the previous one.”

Some observers praise the teamwork of the researchers. Each paper published from the study goes through an extensive review by the entire group—a vetting that can sometimes get tough. “When someone gets up to talk about a measure, it’s like a Ph.D. oral defense with professors who are your worst nightmare,” says Morrison of Loyola.

Nicholas Zill, director of child and family studies at Westat, a research corporation in Rockville, Maryland, praises the NICHD methodology. Deploying researchers from different fields with a common set of instruments is “very pioneering,” Zill says. “That’s very difficult when you have so many academics involved.”

Over the years, the NICHD investigators have gone to unusual lengths to keep up with the kids and their families. Dell of UVA talks of standing on a street corner in a housing project at sundown, trying to get the phone number of a family that had moved away. She’s also driven for hours to get a parent to sign a consent form or fill out a survey.

The researchers say parents are often enthusiastic about such studies when their children are young and the challenge of child rearing is new. But as kids grow up and families’ schedules get squeezed by sports, music lessons, and other activities, they’re more reluctant to meet researchers’ demands for time. More than 200 of the original 1,364 families in the study have dropped out.

“There is some burnout,” Dell says. “But I try to enroll them in the overall vision of this thing.” Some families, she adds, recognize that the study could guide school policy. Others stick with the research because they badly need the money it pays. Each time parents fill out a survey, answer questions over the phone, or open their home to a researcher, they receive between $30 and $50, though Friedman says NICHD tries to make the payments “more meaningful” to poor families. Children who wore the activity monitors last year collected $25 in exchange for a promise that they would not get it wet or let friends wear it.

One Charlottesville-area mother says living in the researchers’ fishbowl has been only a minor inconvenience. She’s learned a lot about her daughter, and the study team has worked hard to make the girl feel important, sending birthday cards and even making a video of her. The daughter, meanwhile, says she is not tired of the activities-yet. “It’s fun, but sometimes I want to go to my friend’s house,” says the girl, who can’t be identified.

Recently, study coordinators began asking children as well as parents to sign consent forms for certain activities. “I think,” says Elise Towsend, a Charlottesville researcher, “that this is going to be as much about keeping the kids happy as it is has been about keeping the parents happy.”

“Research” is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.