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Landmark Study Finds Low-Income Preschoolers Exposed to Nurturing Care Have Higher IQ Scores During Their Teen Years

Findings from RTI International researcher shows lower IQ scores associated with poverty and other adversities can be mitigated with responsive care and learning opportunities for toddlers and preschoolers

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – A new study published last week in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health Journal, by a researcher at RTI International (RTI), a nonprofit research institute, found that preschoolers living in impoverished communities who have access to a nurturing home environment have significantly higher intelligence quotient (IQ) scores in adolescence, compared to those raised without nurturing care. The researchers examined data from long-running studies of over 1,600 children in Brazil and South Africa, who were followed from birth through their teenage years, to assess whether children exposed to early adversities —such as extreme poverty, low birth weight and prematurity— could reach their full learning potential through responsive caregiving and learning opportunities in their homes.

“We found that adolescents who were raised in nurturing environments had IQ scores that were on average six points higher than those who were not — a striking difference that has profound implications by increasing the intelligence of entire communities,” said the senior author of the study Maureen Black, PhD, Distinguished Fellow at RTI International. “A nurturing environment also led to better growth and fewer psycho-social difficulties in adolescence.”

The findings show that prenatal and early life adversities matter throughout life. Adolescents who had been exposed to multiple adversities early in life had lower IQ scores, were more likely to have difficulties adjusting socially and psychologically, and achieved a lower physical height compared to adolescents exposed to fewer adversities. The study also found that being raised in a nurturing environment could significantly counteract the detrimental effect of early adversities on IQ and help children achieve their full intellectual potential.

“Although our findings were based on international data, the same exposure to nurturing environments in home or day-care settings could apply to communities in the U.S.” said Dr. Black. “Exposure to a nurturing environment for any child facing hunger, living in poverty, or lacking access to medical care could lead to cognitive benefits later in life.”

Globally, more than 250 million children under the age of five are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential due to adversities that co-occur early in life and accumulate with age. In the U.S. nearly 1 in 5 children are raised in poverty and 15% do not complete high school, with higher rates for children in Black and Hispanic families.

“Parents want to provide nurturing environments and we need to help them.” said Angela Trude, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a post-doctoral fellow from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She said this includes interacting with young children in a positive way, such as reading children’s books from the library, singing songs together, and playing games with numbers and letters. Children who engage in age-appropriate chores with adult supervision, like picking up toys and clearing the table, gain skills and feel good about helping.

“Get children involved in friendly activities as much as possible rather than parking them in front of a screen,” said Dr. Black. “Children love to learn and in a nurturing environment they can grow into adolescents and adults with the abilities to care for themselves, their families, and their communities.”

The research was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

RTI’s International Education team uses evidence-based approaches to strengthen education policy, management, and practice at every level—from classrooms to national ministries—to achieve measurable improvement in education quality and, ultimately, learning outcomes. Learn more.