Study shows family-based training promotes healthy child development

by University Communications,

A Willamette University psychology professor, Courtney Stevens, has co-authored a paper that was released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences July 1.

This study was designed to evaluate the effectiveness of an eight-week family-based training program for improving attention skills of at-risk preschool children.

Using brain recordings, Stevens and researchers from the University of Oregon saw improved brain activity important for selective attention in the group of children whose families received training.

In this same group, researchers found — via IQ testing and other standardized measurements — greater gains in cognitive and language skills than from children in control groups.

“It's quite remarkable to realize how plastic the human brain is,” says Stevens, whose teachings include Cognitive Neuroscience and Poverty & Public Policy. “These findings really highlight the important role of family-based approaches to supporting healthy child development."

Drawn from participants in Head Start, control groups included children receiving typical Head Start programming and children who participated in a contrasting training program.

The study found that using a family-based model involving children and their parents is highly effective in changing both the children’s neurocognitive function and the parents’ caregiving behaviors.

By teaching parents how to effectively communicate and work with their preschoolers, these parents also reported improvements in their children's behavior and a reduction in their own stress levels.

“A key component of the parenting portion of the program involved supporting parents in establishing consistency, structure and routine for their child,” Stevens says. “More structure leads to less stress in the home, and more opportunity for quality time with children.”

Stevens says the study is important because it addresses a key factor in the differences found among children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds in skills critical to academic performance.

To read a copy of the full report, go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.