Mother-Child Relationship Guides Early-Learning Effort in Israel

April 13, 1983 13 min read
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Chaim Adler is the director of the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s School of Education. The institute was established in 1968 by the National Council of Jewish Women to develop and to implement educational programs for the disadvantaged in Israel.

One of those programs is the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters (hippy), which began in 1968 as an experimental project with initial funding from the National Council of Jewish Women and, later, from the Israeli government. The hippy program now reaches more than 16,000 Israeli families and is considered successful in its attempt to improve the educational aptitudes of preschoolers through a series of lessons administered by their mothers.

In December 1982, the hippy program was the subject of a workshop that drew participants from 14 countries, including the United States. Last month, Mr. Adler, who has been a visiting scholar at the Center for Educational Policy Studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, addressed the convention of the National Council of Jewish Women in Washington.

During Mr. Adler’s visit, he was interviewed by Staff Writer Susan G. Foster.

QThere seems to be a growing interest in starting children in kindergarten and 1st grade earlier. Does hippy accomplish that at home, in effect?

AWell, up to a point. Your question implies that children are starting their formal learning of reading, writing, and simple arithmetic earlier. That is not what hippy is doing. What hippy is trying to do is to use the home environment, especially the mother, in order to allow the kids to be better prepared when they start school. They will be able to conceptualize, to think rationally, to generalize; they will have more language at their disposal and a better grasp of the basic skills.

QAt what ages is it possible to begin that kind of preparation?

AThe program is written for 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds. We start when the children are age 4 and follow them through compulsory kindergarten at the age of 5. We then work with the kids while they are in the 1st grade at age 6.

QHow does hippy adjust to the developmental differences in children?

Ahippy is very carefully programmed and everything is spelled out in a kit of materials, which is delivered to the mothers on a weekly basis. There are stories and questions and drawings to be done with the child. Little is left to the imagination of the participating mothers--the assumption being that the participating mother lacks the background and mental reservoir to be inventive on her own.

hippy might have certain disadvantages for the very exceptional child, who either develops very rapidly or very slowly. There are only a few exceptions. What will happen is that in some families the mothers might devote more time to their children because they are slower. In other families, they might need less time to cover the material.

QWhat does current research say about early learning? What is your concept based on?

ANothing is easy to prove systematically. But the notion is that if you establish contact with a disadvantaged child and his or her family at a very early point in their lives, the negative impact of being culturally disadvantaged will be limited. This is the basic assumption all over the world. Some research corroborates this, but it is not too easy to establish because what you really are looking for is evidence that at the age of 20, this person is capable of earning a living and being more or less a [productive] citizen. And you can never tell about the impact of the measures taken at the age of 4 or 5. But the assumption is that there are positive results from the intervention. We have studied hippy in a systematic way and we have found positive results from the program.

QWhat positive results have you found?

AWe exposed an experimental group of about 60 children and their families to hippy. We also had a control group of about 60 children from the same neighborhood and with the same background, which was not exposed to the program. We looked at those kids two years after hippy and at the end of the 2nd grade. The kids who had been exposed to hippy performed significantly better in their school achievement than the kids who were not exposed to hippy. At the end of the 5th grade, the kids who had been exposed to hippy at ages 4, 5, and 6 were ahead of the kids in the control group.

QThe hippy program sounds similar to the Title I program in this country for economically disadvantaged children, but Title I channeled money into school systems for students well on their way in the educational process. Does hippy decrease the need for remedial programs later?

AI believe hippy closely resembles the Head Start operation even though it is bigger and more varied. The Head Start program claims to diminish the need for remedial programs at a later age, which probably is true of hippy to the same extent, if not more. Head Start is a catch-all of different kinds of programs--some of which are very clearly developed and some that are kind of loose. hippy is very defined. So I would say there would be less need for remedial programs later on.

QWhy would educators here be attracted to hippy, given Head Start and other programs for the disadvantaged?

AI think there are both positive and negative motivations. A positive motivation would be that they would have visited Israel or learned otherwise of our work in this area and of our relative success and they would, therefore, want to avail themselves of [the idea]. I believe that one could quite easily make friends for hippy in the case of those disadvantaged families in this country. Of course, where the family unit is in trouble, hippy might be ineffective and might not be attractive. Although much of what has been done so far has been disappointing because hippy has not been successful with all disadvantaged youngsters, people in this country might be encouraged to look for additional early investments so as to diminish the number of youngsters who encounter difficulties in high school and junior-high school.

QYou have described the program as providing opportunities for children to develop reasoning skills. What other types of benefits have you found?

Ahippy prepares the child for the intellectual challenge of school. The assumption is that the kinds of intellectual nourishment, encouragement, and stimulation that are so prevalent among the middle class of Israel are lacking among those who are culturally impoverished. There is less encouragement in the use of language than is customary among middle-class families. Schooling is a middle-class invention. When disadvantaged kids enter school, they have greater difficulty. If you start doing something that middle-class mothers usually do with their children beginning with the second day of life, you increase that child’s chances of performing well in school.

QThere are proportionately more working mothers in this country whose children are in the care of others. Can those sitters, in turn, act as an extension of the family and become involved in hippy?

AThe biggest innovation of hippy to my mind is that it attempts to work with mothers over a period of three years. There’s got to be a mother with a little bit of free time that can be invested in her child’s development. This is a prerequisite. All the other things are irrelevant. And I don’t think that the baby-sitter arrangement would be the answer. I’m not saying that the children of working mothers have no chance in life. But I think hippy should be applied where there is a mother available. And that doesn’t mean that the mother can’t be a working mother because she surely could be. But she also should be interested in and able to devote a little bit of time to the child.

QWhat are some of the benefits that parents receive from their participation?

AThere is a tremendous amount of gratification involved in just being part of the program because it is very prestigious and may help the child to become a successful student. Most mothers get a sense of self-worth. In many cases, it is the first time that the establishment has recognized these mothers and contacted them once a week in order to instruct and guide them in working with their children. At the end of a year or two, the hippy mother tends to become more independent, more self-confident. Certainly not in an emphatic way, but one might say in a roundabout way.

In hundreds of cases, we have found that these women who come from rather traditional [circumstances], where the father is the dominant figure, set out on a road of their own. They have picked up their education again, started participating in a choir or gone out for gym lessons. These women become a more potent force in society.

QIs it possible to transfer the benefits of hippy you see in Israel to the U.S.?

Ahippy is based on the existence of a functioning family unit. In our case, hippy has not been successful with the most culturally impoverished segments of society, the lowest 5 percent of the population. Therefore, I would have my doubts about the success of hippy in certain segments--what you call the inner-city family where very often the family is a one-parent family or where both mother and father would be the bread earner. But I assume that hippy certainly could be applied in those areas of this country where you have families functioning more or less intact.

QGiven your lack of success with the lowest 5 percent of your country’s disadvantaged families, would you say it’s important to screen those families you permit into the program?

AI’m against screening. I don’t think there’s a need for screening. I would be worried about screening. Once you do, you are bound to have not 5 percent screened out but 20 percent screened out. I would rather have an element of trial and error so that all those who are willing to participate may do so. By and large, it is a voluntary program. You don’t force the mothers of the 4-year-olds to participate; there’s no reason to force them. The ones who are either completely uninterested in their children or unavailable because of economic or emotional problems will just not latch on to the program.

QAre there any new developments with hippy?

AOh, yes. We are now experimenting with a program that would start working with 3-year-olds. Over the last 10 to 12 years, the general [educational] level of the population has gone up and we [think] that some of the materials, which were originally envisioned for 4-year-olds, might be applicable to somewhat younger children. That is still in the experimental stage.

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Early-Learning Project in Israel Aids


Israeli Project Helps Mothers Prepare

Preschool Children

BETH: Don’t know if this is going to come out right because of half spaces between q’s and a’s, but here’s a try. Let me know if you want anything reset,ab

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Another development has been our attempt to replicate the principle of the hippy program for toddlers in the age range of 18 months to 3 years. The program is called “haldaf,” which in Hebrew means toddler, or young children. What we are trying to do is similar to hippy in that materials are delivered to the mothers of these little ones. The difference is that most of the lessons are oral; very little is written because the children are still young. They don’t draw or paint or do things of that nature, so the curriculum would be a little more difficult to develop.

QSo you, too, are looking at the changes in the development of children.

AYes. They may in fact be ready for some type of structured learning much earlier. Again, the notion would be not to start teaching reading and writing earlier but to start the kind of hippy enrichment at an earlier age. You see, what’s happening in Israel is that the general education level of the mothers has gone up. Twelve years ago we might have had a whole group of mothers who were illiterate.

Now, this is almost nonexistent. The formal education of women was around 6 years of learning. Today, it is somewhere between 8 or 9 years. You’ve got to consider the general education level of the population.

QHow economical is the program?

AThat depends on what you call economical. If you think of it just in terms of dollars you invest in a child per year, then it is probably a very expensive program. However, if you consider that somewhere along the line the program will probably have an impact upon young people, resulting in less remedial programs and treatment for delinquency, then it is probably very cheap.

It is almost impossible to estimate if you are a believer in early-childhood intervention. If you are out to save the dollars, as is the case all over the world today, you would say the program is too expensive and let’s not waste our dollars on 4-year-olds.

QWell, for instance, how much has your government allocated to the program?

AThe program for the 16,000 families costs somewhere in the vicinity of $2.5 million a year. The cost per child would be around $270 to $320 a year. Initially, there is some fluctuation between first and second years.

QHow could such a program operate here?

AI think that it could probably have a structure similar to the collaborative effort that we have in Israel, although, of course, it could be modified. We have kept the university in control of the program in a few basic areas. The university supervises the program’s content and hires, and, if it is necessary, fires. The rest is done by the Ministry of Education, what I think you call school districts in your country. I would start with an attempt to replicate somehow the collaboration between a university--which is in charge of quality control and personnel training, supervision, hiring--and another educational establishment, which raises money and organizes.

QHave you attempted to reach those families and children who are in the lowest socioeconomic grouping in the country?

AThe question is whether the technique ought to be a similar technique. I’m doubtful. Any attempt to harness the family to something like hippy would be difficult because the family is not there to do the job. So I guess what one ought to look for in those few cases are other means of reaching the child and not necessarily through his or her mother.

QIs that being attempted now?

AYes, but not necessarily by the hippy operation. One shouldn’t put too much weight on one tree or else it will break. For instance, we are doing things in the area of residential schooling, but not for 4-year-old children. In those cases, you just can’t do much remediation or preventative measures but you have to be prepared to intervene with some corrective measure at a later stage in life.

QDo you mean leaving the home and going away to school?

AThat’s right. That’s a very potent force. I think that when I speak of using or investing in the family through a program like hippy I would not see any sanctity to family.

The fact of the matter is that there are families that are not functioning, and I’m afraid neither I nor you will change that. I think it would be wrong to confine children only to their families. There is a certain percentage of children who ought to be rescued from their families, and the sooner the better.

QIs there such a program in your country right now?

AThere is not a program for 5-year-olds, of course. But we do have a program of a residential nature for children around 7 to 8 years of age. It is not something I recommend, but the residential program is being offered in cases where there is a broken family or abandoned children or some other calamity involving children. I’m not personally involved in it but my understanding is that it’s been quite successful.

A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 1983 edition of Education Week as Mother-Child Relationship Guides Early-Learning Effort in Israel


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