To help young children, focus on parents before Pre-K

On Monday the New York Times published an article titled Language-Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K based on the recent Developmental Science publication by Anne Fernald at Stanford University. The headline should be: Language-Gap Study Bolsters Push for Early Parent Support. As Fernald’s research shows, for low-income children in language-poor home environments high quality pre-K is not prevention; it is remediation.

Early Language Experience creates a ‘Developmental Cascade’

A child’s early language experience in the home – long before the hotly debated year of universal pre-kindergarten – affects language processing speed and overall vocabulary. In other words, it lays the foundation for them to thrive and learn in pre-K and beyond. Fernald explains: “By 2 years of age, these disparities are equivalent to a six-month gap between infants from rich and poor families in both language processing skills and vocabulary knowledge. What we’re seeing here is the beginning of a developmental cascade, a growing disparity between kids that has enormous implications for their later educational success and career opportunities.” By two years of age, the cascade has begun that separates the language-rich from the language-poor.

Early Language is variable within Socio-Economic Status (SES)

The important point is that SES is not the key factor in the developmental cascade. It is language.

In previous research on caregivers’ speech to Spanish-learning children, Fernald’s group found big differences in levels of parental engagement even within a disadvantaged group of families. Those lower SES kids who heard more child-directed talk got faster in processing and learned language more rapidly. “It’s clear that SES is not destiny,” Fernald said. “The good news is that regardless of economic circumstances, parents who use more and richer language with their infants can help their child to learn more quickly.” (Stanford)

That is good news, because it means that interventions with parents of young children that encourage, model and facilitate questioning and conversation with children will have cascading effects for those children that they will carry into Pre-K, elementary school and beyond.

Parents are the Key to Language Development before Pre-K

The stakes are high. According to the Standford article, “By some measures, 5-year-old children of lower socioeconomic status score more than two years behind on standardized language development tests by the time they enter school.” Early childhood experiences of language position children for future learning. Pre-K can be part of that; but it certainly isn’t all of it – and even though it seems “early,” it comes after the foundation has already been laid. The most promising solutions involve public/private/school collaborations that engage parents from the first months of life.

Question: What are the best examples you have seen of parenting support for disadvantaged families of young children?


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