Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Health & Parenting

Font Size

Good Parenting Ups Kids' Mental Skills

Study Shows Better Parenting Skills Sharpen Minds of Kids in Poverty
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 15, 2008 (Boston) -- Growing up poor has insidious effects on kids' mental abilities, beginning when they are very young. But there is new evidence that parents living in poverty can improve their children's chances for a better life by changing how they relate to them at home. 

Researchers at the University of Oregon studied a unique counseling strategy in a small group of poor families enrolled in a federal Head Start program in Oregon. They looked at measures of thinking skills in young children before and after parents had special counseling.

One of the researchers, Courtney Stevens, PhD, presented early results from the study today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

Fourteen children aged 3-5 were tested on language ability and attention, and they had brain scans before their parents began the counseling. Another 14 children had the same tests, but their parents did not receive any special counseling. Once a week for eight weeks, parents of the experimental group went to sessions where they learned good parenting practices, like keeping consistent routines at home and how to discipline children in constructive ways.

The parents learned to introduce "predictability where there were power struggles," Stevens says, and they were coached on how to converse with kids, "allowing the child a chance to contribute to and direct that communication experience."

Afterward, when researchers retested the children, those whose parents had counseling scored markedly better on tests of memory, language ability, attention, and IQ compared with the group whose parents didn't do anything differently. The parents who participated also noted much less stress at home and fewer problems with their children's behavior.

Poverty and Brain Development

It has been known for a long time that living in poverty damages children's intellectual abilities. Scientists have recently begun to understand why. It's not because of money, per se, and it's most certainly not a matter of being somehow inferior. It's the effect of unending stress and lack of proper social support.

At a critical time in early childhood when the brain is developing, stress inhibits the formation of connections between brain cells and restricts blood flow to the brain. "It literally disrupts brain architecture," says Jack Shonkoff, MD, a child development expert at Harvard University.

There are three kinds of stress, Shonkoff says: good stress, which keeps life interesting, "tolerable" stress, which can be very upsetting but which doesn't cause lasting damage, and "toxic" stress. The difference between toxic and tolerable depends on how long the stress lasts and whether or not a person has good social support.

Conditions that produce toxic stress are most common in poverty -- chronic fear and instability together with too little trust in other people -- but it can exist in all income brackets.

Today on WebMD

Girl holding up card with BMI written
Is your child at a healthy weight?
toddler climbing
What happens in your child’s second year.
 
father and son with laundry basket
Get your kids to help around the house.
boy frowning at brocolli
Tips for dealing with mealtime mayhem
 
mother and daughter talking
Tool
child brushing his teeth
Slideshow
 
Sipping hot tea
Slideshow
Young woman holding lip at dentists office
Video
 
Which Vaccines Do Adults Need
Article
rl with friends
fitSlideshow
 
tissue box
Quiz
Child with adhd
Slideshow