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Rich Home Environment Can Close Readiness Gap for Poor Children

Educators looking to eliminate the school readiness gap for children in poverty can look to how parents play with and encourage their youngest children, according to a study published in an online preview this month in Child Development.

By the age of 2, differences in a low-income child's home-learning environment can make the difference between whether he or she will be considered ready for school or labeled at risk at the start of kindergarten two years later.

New York University researchers Eileen Rodriguez Bandel and Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda studied 1,852 children whose families participated at 17 sites where the federal Early Head Start Evaluation Study was taking place. Only about half the families received services through the program, which provides educational training and support for parents in poverty. The researchers analyzed the home environments, including tapes of mother-child interactions, parent surveys, and videos of the home, around the children's first, second, and third birthdays and again at age 5, just before they started kindergarten.

At each age, Ms. Bandel and Ms. Tamis-LeMonda looked at three measures of the home environment which had been previously associated with later school readiness: literacy activities, such as the frequency at which parents and toddlers read books, told stories, and sang nursery rhymes together; maternal engagement, including how well mothers responded to their child's needs and cues and tried to stimulate the child's cognitive and language development; and the availability of educational toys, such as books, role-playing toys like dolls and stuffed animals, musical instruments, blocks, and art supplies. Those areas were coded and combined into a single composite measure of home enrichment.

"There was an enormous amount of variability [of home environment], even within this low-income sample," said Ms. Bandel, now a survey researcher at Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, N.J.

She found that 70 percent of children whose parents created and maintained a high-quality home environment performed at or above national norms on two tests of early school readiness, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and the Woodcock-Johnson Revised Tests of Achievement. These children performed a full standard deviation higher on average than children with low-quality home environments—the difference between being considered on-level and at risk in kindergarten.

Moreover, researchers found that many children whose parents started out with very supportive home environments decreased over time, usually around age 3—the year when children often start to explore more complex educational games and toys. Ms. Bandel told me that the quality of the home environment continued to be important throughout a child's early years, but it proved critical to different skills at different times. Children with rich learning environments in the first few years had higher receptive language skills, while later enriched environments were associated with better letter-word identification.

Moreover, Ms. Bandel said many families provided very similar environments throughout a child's early years, with younger and less-experienced mothers tending to provide less enrichment. She said the study suggests potential to narrow the school readiness gap for students in poverty by providing more training and learning materials, particularly for young parents.

"You can never begin too early," she said. "I think it's invaluable to begin providing this information, particularly to low-income, high-risk families," she said.

The researchers plan to continue to follow the cohort of students to gauge whether early home environments have an effect on academic achievement of students in 5th grade.

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