In the mid-1990s, researchers in the United States revealed a stunning gap in the developmental path of rich and poor children. By age three, the researchers found, children of professionals had heard 30 million more words than low-income children. This endowed privileged youngsters with skills that allowed them to acquire richer vocabularies and more sophisticated language competencies well into their school years. Talking frequently and creatively to very young children, it turned out, was good for young brains—a finding backed by various studies since.
One response was the emergence of parenting programs in both the developed and developing world to eliminate the achievement gap between the rich and poor. Many of these programs currently revolve around home visits or group sessions led by instructors to teach low-income parents how to engage their young children with high quantity and quality speech and play. A study in Jamaica, which predates the 1990s research and is described in the IDB’s report, The Early Years, found that a parenting program for mothers of malnourished children aged 9-24 months improved early cognitive development scores and led to higher IQs, better mental health, and even incomes 20 years later. More recent pilot programs, though lacking the long-term tracking of the Jamaica experiment, have achieved success in Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil.
Cultural barriers, however, can be high. Can a parenting program be effective, for example, when members of a community worry that talking to very young children is either useless or odd; when, in short, they have little understanding of the brain and hold deeply-ingrained taboos against speaking to the very young? A recent program sought to find out.
In 2013, Tostan, a nongovernmental organization founded and based in Senegal, launched a parenting program in 200 poor communities around the country to respond to a situation in which verbal interactions between caregivers and children are rare and few children learn to read. Older Senegalese in rural communities may believe that looking children under the age of 3 in the eye and talking to them can attract evil spirits. Younger parents may think that nothing is going on in the heads of the very young. They may even worry they will be considered crazy if they speak to their babies. And a communal belief in the utility of corporal punishment—which, as discussed in a recent blog has been associated with negative effects on learning—only deepens those obstacles to child development.
Tostan vigorously sought to confront those beliefs and harmful practices in an initial effort lasting 9-10 months. As part of a 43-group-session curriculum, a trained Tostan facilitator taught mothers and other caregivers of children about brain development and early language acquisition. They showed them how to verbally interact with their children with increasingly complex sentences and imaginary play and discussed the harmful effects of corporal punishment. Bi-monthly home visits reinforced that knowledge and helped mothers practice what they learned.
As discussed by Ann Weber, a member of a Stanford University team that evaluated the Tostan effort, in a paper and IDB seminar, results were highly positive. A year after the initiation of the parenting program, caregivers showed a 78% increase in the amount of talk they directed to their young children, with greater warmth and complexity in both their verbal and non-verbal interactions. Their support for corporal punishment decreased. Their children who had ranged from 4-31 months of age at the onset of the program, reaped the rewards. In particular, they experienced a nearly 50% boost in the number of words they used compared to children of control villages and began to employ more expressive vocabulary.
Well-designed parenting programs, it seems, can work. They can show impressive gains even in the most inhospitable conditions, where poverty and illiteracy are high and cultural taboos strong. But can they be scaled-up? Can they expand from small endeavors encompassing a few hundred or a few thousand people to a national level at a reasonable cost? Do they depend on external highly-educated instructors? Or can local communities take over after a few months or years of initial training? And how difficult is it to sustain progress?
Such questions are crucial. In 2007, a series in the medical journal The Lancet concluded that 200 million children under the age of five in developing countries failed to reach their cognitive potential because of poverty, poor health and nutrition, and limited cognitive and social-emotional stimulation. Experts now believe that 250 million are at risk. Yet for all their promise, parenting programs, which could help alleviate crucial hurdles for young children, still have not been refined to the point where they could provide solutions on a mass scale.
Here the experience in Senegal is instructive. Tostan’s program didn’t just consist of 9-10 months of parent training. It was preceded by two years of work in the community on human rights, literacy, health, and hygiene, as well as other critical development issues. A final year of the parenting program then focused on spreading the knowledge more broadly. Religious figures were enlisted, and mothers who had received instruction went on to educate other members of the community in appropriate parenting techniques. This not only helped to ensure that the program could be inexpensive and self-sustaining, it also meant that everyone in the community would eventually become aware of the importance of talking to the young, providing an overall richer language environment for children. Finally, parents in each village formed a school management committee, entrusted with ensuring that schools were held accountable and would build on gains achieved in the home.
Long-term results are not yet in. Nor do we know the extent to which the experience can be replicated in other communities and cultures. What we know is that parenting programs, whether in Africa or Latin America and the Caribbean, appear to work even in the most adverse conditions. And getting the recipe right in each place could make an enormous difference in ensuring that the young reach their potential.
Parenting programs and related issues will be covered in our upcoming flagship report “Learning Better: Public Policy for Skills Development” to be published by the IDB in mid-2017.