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Equipping parents with learning activities helps close cognitive development gap between disadvantaged and high-resourced children

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC— Home-based interventions that teach parents to engage children in playful interactive learning activities can close the cognitive development gap between disadvantaged children and high-resource peers, according to a new study led by RTI International. 

The study, published in the April 2016 issue of Pediatrics, included more than 290 children in India, Pakistan and Zambia whose families received biweekly home visits by trainers before they turned one month old until age three. The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

"By simply teaching caregivers age-appropriate activities to foster child development, we found that early intervention can help children from low-resource families catch up with their peers from high-resource families," said Carla Bann, Ph.D., statistics and psychometrics fellow at RTI and lead author of the study. "This study is significant because the intervention was done in the home and did not require the infrastructure of a center-based intervention, making it feasible for low-resource populations and middle-low-income countries to implement."

The training modeled activities from the Partners for Learning response-to-intervention curriculum, focused on cognitive, self-help, language and motor skills. Trainers then left cards depicting the activities with parents, who were encouraged to apply them in daily life with the child until the next visit. 

By age 3, the study found children from disadvantaged backgrounds had cognitive and psychomotor development scores "statistically indistinguishable" from children in the study who were in high-resource families. The findings are especially promising for areas with limited infrastructure because the intervention did not require classrooms or meeting centers, according to the researchers.

Children from low-resource families who participated in the study were initially cognitively behind children from high-resource families at age 12 months. However, at 36 months of age, those who received the intervention caught up with children from high-resource families, while those who did not receive the intervention remained behind in their cognitive development. 

"Children who perform poorly in school are more likely to have low incomes in adulthood, resulting in reduced developmental outcomes for the next generation" Bann said. "We can help break this cycle by training and encouraging parents in low-resource settings to engage their children in a variety of age-appropriate activities."