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Child Development

Changing Parenting Beliefs Improves Early Childhood Outcomes

Parents who learn about current science nurture children well.

Key points

  • The new science on child development does not reach wide communication.
  • Science on child development has not been communicated to many parents, leaving them with outdated parenting behaviors.
  • When parents are supported in updating parenting beliefs, they nurture children effectively and boost early childhood outcomes.

Kids in our society enter kindergarten with different, sometimes inadequate, levels of school readiness. All too often, those disparities fall along socioeconomic lines. Now, in the first study of its kind, researchers at the University of Chicago have identified that what parents believe about their role in their children’s early learning is a key factor.

Even better, they designed and tested an intervention for parents who noticeably improved children’s school readiness. Their findings, reported in Nature Communications, noted that when an intervention helped parents update their knowledge and equip them with tools, parents’ behaviors naturally enhanced their children’s development.

Aditya Romansa/Unsplash
When parents' beliefs align with current science, their parenting behaviors boost child development.
Source: Aditya Romansa/Unsplash

Study author Dana Suskind, a pediatric ENT surgeon who specializes in hearing loss, and founder and co-director of the TMW Center for Early Learning and Public Health at the University of Chicago, believes that parents are doing what they think will help their children.

“We all love our kids and want the best for our kids,” says Suskind. However, much of the new science on child development has not been widely communicated. “It takes time for that science from the ivory tower to disseminate into the broader world,” says Suskind. Given this, her team wanted to find out how “specific knowledge and beliefs related to children's development map into how parents nurture their kids.”

Suskind is quick to point out that within socioeconomic groups, there is wide heterogeneity in terms of parent education about child development. However, the researchers wanted to understand the disparities often seen for kids who come from lower-income backgrounds. “We found that the more parents’ beliefs were aligned with the current state of sort of scientific knowledge, the more parents facilitated behaviors in line with what helped build the child's brain or build their vocabulary,” says Suskind.

These findings were based on the first of two studies, which helped the team identify parents’ baseline beliefs. Examples of those beliefs centered around subjects such as reading to children, whether educational TV is good for children, or about reading to children or talking with them about shapes and spatial relationships.

Then, for the first study, parents viewed 10-minute videos in the pediatrics clinic during the first six months of life. The videos produced some changes in parents’ beliefs, but because the intervention was minimal, Suskind says her team was not surprised to find that "it wasn't strong enough to really change child outcomes, nor would you actually expect it to be.”

This led Suskind to ask, “What if you assist parents in their knowledge and beliefs so that it’s more aligned with current science? Would you see changes in how they interact with their children and changes in their outcomes?”

“The next step was a much higher dosage intervention that involved over six months of home visits,” says Suskind, “Where we shared the science of their children's development, and then provided parents with strategies.” Examples might be helping parents understand that it’s okay not to read every word in a book. In fact, when their child interrupts to talk about the story, those conversations are very helpful for their child’s learning. Or that parents pointing out shapes in everyday objects or having children compare two windows can build their math and spatial abilities in the early years.

Home visits focused on using a 3T method that helps parents connect with their children in a reciprocal way shown to boost child learning. “For example, they might practice "tuning in, taking turns, and talking more” about cooking a meal, demonstrating how that daily routine presents a perfect opportunity to engage with a child and introduce descriptive language and math terms,” write the study authors.

After 12 one-hour home visits, partnering with parents in their homes, parents showed larger shifts in their beliefs and nurturing behaviors. And that’s where the team saw measurable changes in child outcomes: “enriched parent-child interactions and higher vocabulary, math, and social-emotional skills for the children,” according to the paper.

Suskind found herself reflecting on the relationship between social justice and science. Indeed, her observation that society lets families down during the critical early years of child development was the subject of her recent op-ed for the Chicago Tribune. She finds the way our society puts the onus on parents problematic. “None of us are born knowing this stuff. Science can inform society and better support families. We need to have more systematic ways of sharing this information with parents.”