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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  To access the full research publication summarized in this digest, please see the citation below. For help citing this article, click here.

Introduction

Responsive parenting is the use of warm and accepting behaviors to respond to children’s needs and signals. This type of parenting is critically important to young children’s development: When parents use these behaviors, a child experiences acceptance of his or her uniqueness. In turn, this encourages a child to continue to communicate his or her needs and interests and to engage in learning interactions. The support associated with responsiveness helps children internalize what they learn in interactions with their caregivers and generalize it to new experiences.

Interventions helping parents learn responsive behaviors have shown that increases in responsiveness result in their children demonstrating better problem-solving, language, and social skills (Landry, Smith, Swank, & Guttentag, 2008), as well as improved emotional skills (Bakermans-Kranenburg, Van IJzendoorn, & Juffer, 2003) and behavioral development (Van Zeijl et al., 2006).  

Our Study

Our study is unique given that, prior to our project, the skills that children develop during shared book-reading activities had yet to be examined in relation to responsive parenting interventions.  We examined whether coaching mothers to use a range of responsive behaviors in everyday activities (e.g., feeding, dressing, playing) would lead the mothers to generalize their use of these behaviors during shared book-reading activities and, in turn, enhance their children’s engagement and language.

Shared book reading, the practice of an adult and child reading and exploring a book together, is important for promoting oral language and emergent literacy. It is also associated with reading achievement in first grade (Lesemen & de Jong, 1998). Studies have examined the effectiveness of targeted shared reading interventions to teach parents to use techniques that encourage young children to talk about illustrations and the book as a whole (e.g., Arnold, Lonigan, Whitehurst, & Epstein, 1994). These interventions had small to moderate positive effects on children’s language, particularly for children at low risk for literacy problems (Mol, Bus, de Jong, & Smeets, 2008).

The study described in this digest included approximately 166 mothers and their young children who were expected to be at high risk for literacy problems, as they were from low socioeconomic backgrounds where daily shared reading was less likely to occur (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2009). Half of the families also had a child born prematurely with a very low birth weight (VLBW); premature and VLBW children are often more likely to experience difficulty with learning due to problems in engaging and taking initiative (Garner, Landry, & Richardson, 1991) and to have more cognitive and academic problems in school (Taylor, Klein, Minich, & Hack, 2000).

PALS

The Play and Learning Strategies (PALS) curriculum was designed as a preventive intervention program to strengthen the bond between parent and child and stimulate early language, cognitive, and social development. The curriculum, which is offered in 10- and 12-week sessions, uses videotaped examples of real mothers and children to demonstrate different topics and allow mothers to critique these examples before practicing new skills with their own children.

For more information, visit http://www.childrenslearninginstitute.org/our-programs/program-overview/PALS/default.html.

The mothers were assigned randomly to receive the Play and Learning Strategies (PALS) home coaching program either (a) during their child’s first year of life (approximately 10 weekly sessions), (b) when their child was a toddler/preschooler (12 sessions), or (c) during both periods of their child’s development. About one quarter of the families in the study did not receive PALS but did have home visits from trained coaches where they were given information about how their child was developing.

The mothers in the PALS program viewed and discussed videos of other mothers (with similar socioeconomic backgrounds and/or ethnicities) using responsive behaviors (e.g., responding to a child’s signals, building on a child’s interests, using rich language) in everyday activities. Mothers were then videotaped trying the behaviors with their children and were asked to self-reflect about their own behaviors and their children’s responses with the PALS coach.

Results

The following findings provide support for PALS and other interventions targeting global responsiveness behaviors.

  • The mothers in the PALS program showed strong gains in the use of language techniques during shared reading activities, which prompted children to use higher-level language responses. The language techniques used by mothers included asking more open-ended questions and providing prompts to encourage a child to respond, using more verbal facilitation techniques (e.g., expanding on the child’s response in ways that provided more information), and using sensitive responsiveness (responding promptly in ways that are consistent with the child’s signals and cues).  
  • The children whose mothers received PALS responded with more verbal responses including questions and requests for information about the text, naming pictures and commenting about the pictures and the text, and showing more engagement and enthusiasm about the shared reading activity than children in the non-PALS group.
  • The mothers and children in the PALS responsiveness program showed similar improvements in their responsive shared reading behaviors. This occurred for children born healthy and full-term and for those born with a very low birth weight and premature. This finding supports the hypothesis that responsive parenting supports children’s development, even in the face of biological risk.
  • The mothers who received PALS during both infancy and the toddler/preschool years were better able to apply their use of responsive behaviors in everyday activities to their shared book-reading activities than the mothers receiving PALS during only one of those periods. It may be that sustained participation over time gave mothers a greater appreciation for and more acceptance of their children’s changing skills.

Recommendations for Practice

  • The earlier the intervention, the better. Our study demonstrates the power of early intervention programs that target responsive behaviors for both mothers and children.
  • Effective interventions must consistently reach families during infancy and toddler/preschool years. Our study demonstrates that in order for parents to transfer responsive behaviors to an activity not specifically targeted in the program (i.e. shared book reading), parents need the support of the program across the infant and early childhood period.  

Source

This content is summarized from Landry, S. H., Smith, K. E., Swank, P. R., Zucker, T., Crawford, A. D., & Solari, E. F. (in press). The effects of a responsive parenting intervention on parent–child interactions during shared book reading. Developmental Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0026400

Susan H. Landry
Department of Pediatrics
Children’s Learning Institute
University of Texas Health Science Center – Houston
Houston, TX  77030
Susan.Landry@uth.tmc.edu

Karen E. Smith
University of Texas Medical Branch Galveston
Galveston, TX
Karen E. Smith
ksmith@utmb.edu

Paul R. Swank
Department of Pediatrics
Children’s Learning Institute
University of Texas Health Science Center – Houston
Houston, TX  77030
Paul.R.Swank@uth.tmc.edu

Tricia Zucker
Department of Pediatrics
Children’s Learning Institute
University of Texas Health Science Center – Houston
Houston, TX  77030
Tricia.Zucker@uth.tmc.edu

April D. Crawford
Department of Pediatrics
Children’s Learning Institute
University of Texas Health Science Center – Houston
Houston, TX  77030
April.Crawford@uth.tmc.edu

Emily Solari
Department of Pediatrics
Children’s Learning Institute
University of Texas Health Science Center – Houston
Houston, TX  77030

References

Arnold, D. H., Lonigan, C. J., Whitehurst, G. J., & Epstein, J. N. (1994). Accelerating language development through picture book reading: Replication and extension to a videotape training format. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(2), 235–243. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.86.2.235

Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., van IJzendoorn, M. H., & Juffer, F. (2003). Less is more: Meta-analyses of sensitivity and attachment interventions in early childhood. Psychological Bulletin, 129(2), 195–215. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.129.2.195

Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. (2009). America’s children: Key national indicators of well-being, 2009. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Garner, P., Landry, S. H., & Richardson, M. (1991). The development of joint attention skills in very-low-birth-weight infants across the first two years. Infant Behavior and Development, 14(4), 489–495. doi: 10.1016/0163-6383(91)90035-Q

Landry, S. H., Smith, K. E., Swank, P. R., & Guttentag, C. (2008). A responsive parenting intervention: The optimal timing across early childhood for impacting maternal behaviors and child outcomes. Developmental Psychology, 44(5), 1335–1353. doi: 10.1037/a0013030

Leseman, P. P. M., & de Jong, P. F. (1998). Home literacy: Opportunity, instruction, cooperation, and social-emotional quality predicting early reading achievement. Reading Research Quarterly, 33(3), 294-318. doi: 10.1598/RRQ.33.3.3

Mol, S. E., Bus, A. G., de Jong, M. T., & Smeets, D. J. H. (2008). Added value of dialogic parent-child book readings: A meta-analysis. Early Education and Development, 19(1), 7–26.

Taylor, H. G., Klein, N., Minich, N. M., & Hack, M. (2000). Middle-school-age outcomes in children with very low birthweight. Child Development, 71(6), 1495–1511. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00242

Van Zeijl, J., Mesman, J., Van IJzendoorn, M. H., Bakersman-Kranenburg, M. J., & Juffer, F. (2006). Attachment-based intervention for enhancing sensitive discipline in mothers of 1- to 3-year-old children at risk for externalizing behavior problems: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(6), 994–1005. 

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