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October 21, 2021

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8:26 p.m.

New Study Shows How Parental Beliefs and Socioeconomic Status Impact Early Childhood Outcomes

Meghan Hendrix / The Chicago Maroon

A new study shows that parents in low-income families are less likely to believe that an early investment in childhood interactions, such as taking turns and communicating directly, will yield long-term benefits. The research, led by the University’s Center for Early Learning and Public Health, was published on October 1 in Nature Conversations.

The cross-disciplinary study, conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago Medicine and Economics Departments, has found that these divides in parental beliefs across socioeconomic status play an important role in early childhood development.

“We show that parental beliefs about the impact of their investments in child development are an important determinant in shaping early childhood trajectories,” explains Julie Pernaudet, a University economist and one of the paper’s three authors.

Through field experiments, researchers looked at parental beliefs about child development in families from medically “underserved, underinsured, or uninsured” communities in the Chicago area. Researchers shared a curriculum with parents known as the “3T’s: Tuning in, Talking more, and Taking turns.” Originally developed by the Center for Early Learning, this straightforward approach helps parents engage directly with their children in a way that is scientifically proven to promote healthy development. 

The aim of both field experiments was to determine whether efforts to educate parents on child development could benefit early childhood skills. In the first of two experiments, families with newborns were shown four educational videos about child development over the course of six months. In the second experiment, researchers visited the homes of families with children around two years of age and provided parents with lessons on child development. Each family in the second, more intensive experiment received twelve hour-long visits spanning six months. 

Results show that these evidence-based interventions can change parental beliefs about child development. As these perceptions evolved throughout the educational periods of the field experiments, researchers observed that the children improved in early markers of child aptitude. “We find that with the most intensive program, we improve child outcomes on a broad range of skills: math, vocabulary, social-emotional health,” said Pernaudet.

Besides academic and emotional communication, researchers also noticed a pattern across socioeconomic lines. “The beliefs that parents have about the efficacy of their investments are very disparate,” explains John List, a research economist on the paper and co-chair of the Center for Early Learning. 

According to List, making sure that more parents understand the benefits of early childhood investment is crucial to closing the socioeconomic opportunity gap and giving every child a fair chance. 

“What I think this research really informs is how we need to change things at the systems level standpoint,” argues physician Dana Suskind, the paper’s third author and co-chair of the Center for Early Learning. 

Suskind warns that the paper shouldn’t be read as a reflection on the behavior of individual parents, but rather as a look into a systemic failure to educate parents about their children’s development.

By bolstering the resources available to pediatricians, information about childhood development could become easier to disseminate. “This research really calls for us to reimagine how society can better support families. We need a systemic way to share this information with parents,” maintains Suskind.

At the same time, the amount of time that parents can invest into their children is limited by socioeconomic status. Suskind points out that the United States is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that doesn’t offer paid parental leave. Even families concerned about spending time with their children are hindered by institutional factors that can only be addressed at the political level. 

Ultimately, Suskind notes that this study is about figuring out how to give parents the tools and information they need to provide their children with the best possible start to life. Scientists and pediatricians have the power to radically change early childhood trajectories, but only if they change parental beliefs first. 

“In the program, we have this formula, we say: ‘Babies are not born smart. They become smart.’” But even more importantly Pernaudet explains, “Parents are not born parents. They become parents.”