The Earliest Intervention: How to stop the achievement gap from starting?

The Earliest Intervention: How to stop the achievement gap from starting?

In an article posted June 27 for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization focused on producing in-depth education journalism, writer Sara Neufeld reports on a home visiting program in Chicago, IL titled the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a nonprofit that strives to stop the achievement gap for children in poverty from ever starting.  Neufeld tells readers that although President Obama has “reignited the national conversation about early childhood education by proposing universal preschool for 4-year olds from low- and moderate-income families,” Ounce advocates for “beginning assistance at the first possible moment — in other words, before birth.”

What Ounce and others elsewhere know is that much of a child’s brain development occurs in the first three years of life.  They know that waiting until a child is 4 years old is simply too late.  Neufeld points out in her article that “poor babies as young as 9 months show a gap in cognitive development compared with wealthier peers, a gap that triples by the time they are 2 years old.”  She reminds us that children’s “self-regulation,” or ability to control their behavior which predicts their educational outcomes and life outcomes generally, develops “through personal relationships and are often harmed by the stresses of poverty.”  

In the article, Neufeld tells the story of Dwana Harris, 28, who is visited and coached by women from the Ounce of Prevention Fund.  Through Harris’ story, readers can gain insight into how important it is to “build a relationship with an expectant mother and, by extension, an entire family.”  Ounce works to build Harris’ confidence in being heard, in feeling valued, and in speaking up in institutional settings.  The organization also works to show Harris how to develop a baby’s vocabulary through reading, singing and stimulating conversation — starting in utero.  Neufeld tells us that Ounce aims to help guide Harris to nurture not only her child, but also herself, so that she can learn to advocate for herself and her child.  By doing so, Ounce believes that children of mothers in underserved communities can grow up in “more grounded, affectionate and engaging environments.”  

In addition to telling Harris’ story of a woman in her 20’s overcoming significant challenges, including the loss of her first child when he arrived stillborn, Neufeld gives readers insight into the overwhelming life circumstances of teenage mothers when she tells the story of Celina Hernandez, who became a mother at 17.  According to Neufeld, Hernandez’s mother and grandmother were both teenage parents (Hernandez’s mother had Celina at the age of 15.).  Through Hernandez’s report, Neufeld tells of the crowded living conditions, health problems, career dreams, bullying, and learning disabilities that Hernandez experiences in her life while being a teenage mother.  Hernandez was encouraged by Ounce workers to be an active participant in the decision-making about her baby’s birth and whether or not she would breastfeed.  Hernandez has committed to participating in Ounce because, as she says, “They said that they’ll help her, you know, to develop her brain.  I want her to be a smart baby.  So that’s why I want to stay with the program.”  Hernandez admits in the article that she reads both Spanish and English books to her, sings her songs, and still refers to a handout she received from Ounce workers about how to make her infant daughter feel loved.

According to Neufeld, “the University of Chicago is embarking on a major study of Ounce-funded programs that will measure impact on parenting practices, maternal health and child health, including the family’s experiences with domestic violence and the criminal justice system.”  But, she tells us that the research won’t measure a child’s later academic outcomes, since doing so would require tracking families over many years.  Although no one has drawn the connections between intervening with mothers and babies right from the start and a child’s later test scores, Neufeld expresses her belief that “a link with school readiness seems not just plausible but obvious to those in the field.”

Neufeld brings up Hart and Risley’s famous study that was the focus of my blog yesterday, and goes on to tell us about Dana Suskind, a University of Chicago pediatric surgeon who is piloting something she calls the Thirty Million Words Project.  In the project, home visitors train mothers to engage their babies in stimulating conversation and develop their vocabularies.  Suskind encourages program participants to build language skills by pointing out the parts of animals and by taking an interest in what a child is doing to make him feel important.

Neufeld goes on to reveal in her article that encouraging everyone in a young mother’s life –teachers, relatives, doctors, peers — to treat her respectfully and to use appropriate language with her will cause her to then replicate “those interactions with her child.”  From there, the amount saved in social costs will be worth it.  According to Nobel laureate James Heckman, every dollar spent on preparing very young children to learn saves taxpayers $7 in the long run.   From there, Neufeld tells us that “interventions produce progressively less payoff as children get older.”




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