Parents are most inexperienced during foundational years of a child's life, report says
Posted August 9
What happens between birth and third grade will set the foundation for the child’s life cognitively, socially and emotionally. It’s also a time when many parents lack the information and tools they need to "promote their children’s healthy development," according to a new report released this month by a blue ribbon panel for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
A child’s developmental process is zipping along — and it continues whether parents know what they should be doing or not, said Vivian L. Gadsden, director of the National Center on Fathers and Families at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the American Educational Research Association. She chaired the board that produced the report, “Parenting Matters: Supporting Parents of Children Ages 0-8.”
“I think a reminder in this report is that the role of parents and other caregivers is really great in the earliest part of children’s lives,” she said in a phone interview. “What’s kind of complex about this is that very often early on, particularly with parents who have the fewest resources, things are not organized. They are still trying to figure out life while the children are very young. Yet we know how important that early part of life is.”
Gadsden said the purpose of the report was to look at existing research on child development and parenting to craft recommendations for parents and policymakers alike that would serve as a guide to best practices. When the report refers to parents, she said, it means “primary caregiver,” whether mom or dad, a step-parent, grandparent or someone else.
The more parents know about child development, the more likely they are to engage in practices that promote healthy development, Iheoma Iruka of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, said during an online press briefing.
On the parenting side, being immediately responsive to a young child (the report calls it “serve and return,”) is incredibly important, Gadsden said. The response can be as simple as returning a baby’s smile — or it can be more complicated. But it’s being in the present moment with the child, reacting and interacting.
The report notes the importance of taking care of physical aspects of a child’s life, from getting adequate prenatal care to breastfeeding, having vaccinations on schedule, proper nutrition and physical activity. Safety is also emphasized.
As a child development expert, Gadsden said she’s partial to continued emphasis on reading and talking with children at even the youngest ages. It builds vocabulary, creativity and more.
She noted some parents, especially young ones, may not talk to young children directly unless it’s related to discipline. As kids get older, parents should share what they think and encourage children to do the same. If you’re reading a book or watching TV, talk about what the child thinks is happening.
“Being able to have the other person’s point of view, being able to articulate your point of view as a child — those are consistent with emphasis on cognitive and social and emotional development," Gadsden said. "Have the kinds of conversations that help a child develop good executive function, understand what cooperation is and demonstrate what you know.”
The report also suggests use of "appropriate, less-harsh” discipline and the value of routines and “reduced household chaos.”
The panel’s policy recommendations focus on identifying effective practices and interventions, then making them accessible to large numbers of families. But it’s not a matter of talking at families as much as engaging with them, the group said.
The report suggests “viewing parents as equal partners in determining the types of services that would most benefit them and their children,” then tailoring interventions to a family’s specific needs.
Iruka said programs that support parenting range across a spectrum, from skills training to formal parental support, such as center-based child care.
But Eric Dearing of the Boston College School of Education noted that programs that prepare individuals to work with young children do not always include “evidence-informed strategies for creating successful partnerships with families.”
And, he said policy makers need to work harder to provide the latest information to parents about milestones and healthy development.
That need is especially true for underserved populations like immigrants, minorities and low-income families, he said.
Certain populations — including parents of a child with a disability, immigrants and fathers — should also have programs and outreach tailored to engage and inform them, according to the report.
The report notes a need for more research to enhance parenting practices that benefit healthy child development.
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