A new study finds that children’s home environment in infancy and toddlerhood can predict their academic skills by 5th grade.
Researchers from New York University studied more than 2,200 families enrolled in the Early Head Start Research Evaluation Project. They followed children from birth through 5th grade to determine the impact of early home-learning environments on later academic success.
Their study was published online this month in the journal Applied Developmental Science.
All of the children in the study came from low-income, ethnically diverse families. The researchers found that children whose parents engaged them in meaningful conversations and provided them with books and toys designed to increase learning were much more likely to develop early cognitive skills that led to later academic success.
Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, a professor of developmental psychology at NYU and one of the study’s lead investigators, stresses that the results counter a lot of the narratives that we’ve been led to believe about low-income families.
“We often make assumptions that this is a homogeneous group,” said Tamis-LeMonda. “They’re all living in poverty, so these kids will therefore be doing horribly, that parenting will be weak. What is amazing to think about is how much the experiences of these children vary from one another. You have children who are in poor families who are getting incredibly rich engagement. Parents are talking to them all the time, providing rich language, lots of books, lots of toys, and then at the other extreme, also within low-income families, you have children who are in much more impoverished circumstances.”
So just how important is a child’s early-learning environment?
“I personally think it is so powerful, so important for so many reasons that it’s actually difficult to overcome the early course of development for good or for bad,” said Tamis-LeMonda. “This is one reason it’s very difficult to intervene with children at much later ages.”
The researchers studied the children’s learning environments through a series of five home visits at 14 months, 2 and 3 years, at prekindergarten, and at 5th grade. At each visit the mothers were interviewed about things such as time spent reading to their children and teaching them letters and numbers. The researchers also watched them interact with their children during play. For example, they checked to see if the mothers responded to their children’s cues. They also looked to see if things such as children’s books and toys that facilitated learning were present in the home.
During the 5th grade visit, researchers noted the number of books in the home and the quality of the mothers’ engagement with their children through spontaneous interactions and a task that had the mother and child discuss a situation that could cause conflict between them and how they would resolve it.
The children’s academic skills were assessed at the pre-K and 5th grade visits for things such as vocabulary and problem solving, and the researchers found that early-learning environment predicted pre-K skills as well as achievement in 5th grade.
They also discovered that early-learning environments predicted later learning environments. For example, Tamis-LeMonda points out that children with the lowest quality home environments during infancy and toddlerhood averaged 10 books in the home by 5th grade, while the children with the highest quality home environments averaged more than a 100.
These findings were true across all ethnic/racial groups studied.
The researchers controlled for several possible factors such as whether the children were born prematurely, their early health, parents’ education, and whether or not they were born to teenage parents.
Tamis-LeMonda notes that the study found being raised in an enhanced early-learning environment outweighed these factors in the long term.
Important Factors for Early-Learning Environment
The researchers found that children with a father in the home, adult parents versus teenage parents, and more-educated parents tended to have better environments for early learning.
Tamis-LeMonda says no matter what your income level is, if you’re under a lot of stress it’s harder to an effective parent.
“If you’re a single parent, if you don’t have an education, if you lost your job, all of these situations compromise parenting,” Tamis-LeMonda said. “They make it harder to respond to your child. They make it harder to find time to sit down and read to your child. They make it harder to sit down and play with your child. They make it harder to have a regular routine, harder to bring your child to the library, etc..”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.