A team of researchers in 1986 from the University of the West Indies undertook an experiment that has changed our thinking about how to help children succeed. Poor Jamaican families with infants and toddlers were divided into groups. One group received hour-long home visits once a week from a trained researcher who encouraged the parents to spend more time playing actively with their children: reading picture books, singing songs, playing peekaboo. Another group of children received a kilogram of a milk-based nutritional supplement each week. The third control group received nothing. The interventions ended after two years, however the researchers continued to follow the children ever since.
The results were surprising in that the added nutrition did not make the biggest difference; it was the encouragement of the parents to play. These children did better, throughout childhood, on tests of I.Q., aggressive behaviour and self-control. Today, as adults, they earn an average of 25 percent more per year than the subjects whose parents didn’t receive home visits.
The Jamaica experiment helps make the case that if we want to improve children’s opportunities for success, one of the most powerful potential levers for change is not the children themselves, but rather the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of the adults who surround them.
When children are provided with supportive, personalised coaching that identifies and reinforces the small moments — such as the face-to-face exchanges sometimes called “serve and return” interactions — that encourages attachment, warmth and trust between parents and children.
Further research highlights what a significant impact this coaching approach can have. Foster parents in another research series of experiments, who had infants and toddlers, and received just 10 home visits, demonstrated that children in their care had fewer behaviour problems than a control group and significantly higher rates of “secure attachment” (a close, stable connection with the adults in their lives).
The children’s ability to process stress improved, too. In fact, the daily patterns in their levels of cortisol, a key stress hormone, came to resemble those of typical, well-functioning, non-foster-care children.
When parents get the support they need to create a warm, stable, nurturing environment at home, their children’s stress levels often go down, while their emotional stability and psychological resilience improve.
The New York Times – Excerpt from Paul Tough article from his book “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.”