15-year USU study on parents playing with children shows significant impact on academic achievement

Utah State University researchers spent 15 years studying families enrolled in the “U.S. Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project” and determined the range of influence early parent-child engagement has on later academic achievement is significant. “It is,” said Gina Cook, a Utah State University research assistant professor. “We were surprised to see that even in the fifth grade those early interactions still make a difference for children.” Cook was involved in the research from the outset (1996) first as a graduate assistant working with Dr. Lori Roggman who obtained the original grant. Cook said the research included the children in the Early Head Start project when they were two and three years old. “At that age we observed them playing separately with their mothers and fathers, in a semi-structured play activity, and we looked at the level of stimulating activity that each of those parents provided during that play. “We followed up again when they were in fifth grade and looked at their scores in math and reading and saw that those mothers and fathers that stimulated their kids at a higher level, that engaged in more stimulating play like pretend games, those kids ended up with better grades by the time they reached fifth grade.” Cook said that was true for both mothers and fathers. “For this study we also looked at father-child interaction and we found that biological fathers, especially when they were living in the home, contributed above and beyond what the mothers were doing.” She said the results of the study point to the importance of playing with our children. “And it’s not just playing with our kids but it’s how we play with them. And that both mothers and fathers are important in those interactions.” Observations of mother-toddler and father-toddler interactions in 229 low-income families made at age 2 were examined in relation to child outcomes at age 3 and then again in the fifth grade. The research indicates that in homes with both biological parents, the mother provided higher levels of cognitive stimulation with the toddlers and the fathers contributed to later academic outcomes above and beyond mothers. “It is important for parents to engage with their children during the vital, early stages of brain development, because that early exposure to cognitive stimulation with both mothers and fathers can have a long-lasting and positive influence on the educational success of at-risk children.” Cook and other researchers are part of USU’s Department of Family, Consumer and Human Development in the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services. Results of the study were published last week in a special issue on fathers in the Family Science Journal.

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