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Learning from mom boosts low-income kids' school readiness (7/3/2011)

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Previous research says on average, children living in poverty are less well prepared to start school than children from middle-income homes. Now, new research says home learning experiences may help low-income children's school readiness.

"Our findings indicate that enriched learning experiences as early as the first year of life are important to children's vocabulary growth, which in turn provides a foundation for children's later school success," said Eileen T. Rodriguez, survey researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Rodriguez, the study's lead author, conducted the research as part of her Ph.D. program at New York University.

"This research provides an important glimpse into how children learn and develop in naturalistic settings across time," said Amber Story, a social psychologist and deputy director of the National Science Foundation's Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, which funded the study.

"Such data is difficult to gather but it adds a necessary dimension to our understanding of learning and all the factors that impact it before the child even reaches the classroom."

Over a five-year period, the study examined the learning environments of more than 1,850 children and their mothers from predominantly low-income households; that is, households at or below the federal poverty line. Researchers used home visits to gather information when the children were one, two, three and five years old.

The researchers gathered information on how often children took part in literacy activities, such as shared book reading; the quality of mothers' engagements with their children, such as children's exposure to frequent and varied adult speech; and the availability of learning materials, such as children's books.

From this information, the researchers calculated a total learning environment score at each age for each of the children. They also measured the number of words the children understood and their knowledge of letters and words at five years old.

"The quality of children's environments over time varied greatly," said Rodriguez. "Some children experienced environments that were uniformly low or high in language and literacy supports at all ages examined, while others experienced environments that changed as they developed."

The researchers found that differences in the children's learning environments over time predicted their readiness skills. In one example, children whose learning environments were consistently low in quality across the four ages studied were much more likely to have delays in language and literacy skills at pre-kindergarten than children whose environments were uniformly high at all the ages.

Experiences that occur as children are poised to enter kindergarten also matter, particularly in contributing to children's early reading skills. "Home learning experiences that are consistently supportive in the early years may close the school readiness gap of children from low-income backgrounds," said Rodriguez.

"As a parent, it is never too early to engage your child in learning," noted Story. "This research suggests that the degree to which parents read and talk to their infant; point and label objects in the environment; and provide engaging books and toys when their child is only 15 months old can have long-lasting effects on the infant's language skills years later."

The researchers also found that characteristics of children and families, including children's cognitive ability as infants; mothers' race and ethnicity; education and employment; and family's household income predicted the course of children's early learning environments.

Rodriguez says practitioners should offer both direct and indirect support to help families provide better learning experiences for their children at home. Direct backing would involve efforts to promote literacy behaviors, while indirect support would involve targeting areas that might be associated with their ability to provide assistance, such as with the mothers' education.

In addition, efforts should be carried out as early as the first year of life. "Interventions early on may set families on an altered trajectory of support if families are supported in their efforts to engage children in routine literacy activities; interact with children in supportive ways; and provide children opportunities to learn about their worlds through educational materials," according to Rodriguez.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by the National Science Foundation

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