Anyone who’s cared for a toddler or two knows that your own degree of work stress, worry, exhaustion, and even hunger can make all the difference in whether you find the latest chorus of “Happy Birthday to Shoes” charmingly absurd or teeth-grindingly annoying.
For parents in poverty, constant physical and financial insecurity can create stress and depression that make it harder to build healthy relationships with their children. A new study in the journal Pediatrics suggests pointing parents to the positive aspects of their interactions with their little ones can both reduce Mom’s stress and improve her children’s cognitive development and behavior.
At birth, 675 children and their mothers from low-income, mostly Latino families were randomly assigned to either a control group of standard pediatric visits, a “building blocks” group that received monthly newsletters on parenting along with toys for the children, or the Video Interaction Project, a 30-minute addition to regular pediatric check-ups.
VIP parents were videotaped playing with and reading to their children for 5 to 7 minutes at each session. After the medical check-up, a child development specialist went over the tape with the mom, pointing out positive interactions and suggesting ways to build on missed opportunities. At the end of each session, the child received a book or toy and the mother received a copy of the tape and a pamphlet with suggestions on ways to speak and respond during play and daily routines.
New York University School of Medicine researchers Adriana Weisleder and Alan Mendelsohn tracked 463 mothers and children who participated in 15 sessions over well-child visits between birth and age 5. By age 3, children who had participated in the VIP program had significantly higher attention skills and lower levels of aggression and separation anxiety than students whose mothers had only received newsletters or general pediatric visits. Children in families who had experienced homelessness, violence, mental illness, or significant financial instability had the largest benefits: VIP children had half the rate of hyperactivity as those who did not participate in the program.
Earlier studies of the program also showed it reduced depression for the children’s mothers as well as their use of spanking to discipline the toddlers. Recorded interactions are becoming increasingly common as a tool to help parents and teachers identify and reflect on their practices with children.
“This study shows that a low cost intervention to help parents with infants and toddlers has the potential to reduce poverty-related disparities in school readiness that stand in the way of academic achievement,” Griffin said in a statement; the program costs $150 to $200 per child each year. The researchers are continuing to study the program’s effects into early elementary grades.
Photo: A mother reviews a video of her and her child as part of the Video Interaction Project. Source: New York University School of Medicine, Children of Bellevue Video Interaction Project, Ames Hill Productions
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.