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Good Parenting Raises Kids' Mental Skills

Growing up poor has insidious effects on kids'
mental abilities, beginning when they are very young. But there is new evidence
that parents living in poverty can improve their children's chances for a
better life by changing how they relate to them at home. 

Researchers at the University of Oregon studied a unique counseling strategy
in a small group of poor families enrolled in a federal Head Start program in
Oregon. They looked at measures of thinking skills in young children before and
after parents had special counseling.

One of the researchers, Courtney Stevens, PhD, presented early results from
the study today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science in Boston.

Fourteen children aged 3-5 were tested on language ability and attention,
and they had brain scans before their parents began the counseling. Another 14
children had the same tests, but their parents did not receive any special
counseling. Once a week for eight weeks, parents of the experimental group went
to sessions where they learned good parenting practices, like
keeping consistent routines at home and how to discipline children in
constructive ways.

The parents learned to introduce "predictability where there were power
struggles," Stevens says, and they were coached on how to converse with
kids, "allowing the child a chance to contribute to and direct that
communication experience."

Afterward, when researchers retested the children, those whose parents had
counseling scored markedly better on tests of memory, language ability,
attention, and IQ compared with the group whose parents didn't do anything
differently. The parents who participated also noted much less stress at home and fewer problems with their children's

Poverty and Brain Development

It has been known for a long time that living in poverty damages children's
intellectual abilities. Scientists have recently begun to understand why. It's
not because of money, per se, and it's most certainly not a matter of being
somehow inferior. It's the effect of unending stress and lack of proper social

At a critical time in early childhood when the brain is developing, stress
inhibits the formation of connections between brain cells and restricts blood
flow to the brain. "It literally disrupts brain architecture," says
Jack Shonkoff, MD, a child development expert at Harvard University.

There are three kinds of stress, Shonkoff says: good stress, which keeps
life interesting, "tolerable" stress, which can be very upsetting but
which doesn't cause lasting damage, and "toxic" stress. The difference
between toxic and tolerable depends on how long the stress lasts and whether or
not a person has good social support.

Conditions that produce toxic stress are most common in poverty -- chronic
fear and instability together with too little trust in other people -- but it
can exist in all income brackets.

The systems in a child's forming brain most vulnerable to toxic stress are
those involved with language and attention. These things are not hard-wired by
genes. A child develops verbal abilities and concentration in early childhood,
and this development is highly influenced by the child's experiences. Bad
experiences harm development, but by the same token, "it has potential to
be enhanced," Stevens says.

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD, co-director of the Institute for Child and Family
Policy at Columbia University in New York City, says the most helpful ways to
even the odds for poor kids are preschool education and efforts to improve
parenting practices. She says the policy institute she leads has "very
specific recommendations on parenting practices," which agree with what the
Oregon researchers taught. 

Shonkoff argues that the importance of programs to aid poor children and
their parents can't be underestimated because the effects last a lifetime.
"The earlie we intervene, the better," Shonkoff says.

"We don't have a simple recipe" for good parenting, Stevens says,
but the methods parents learned in the study were well founded in scientific
research, and families benefited not long after beginning to try them.

By Martin Downs
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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