Helen J. Neville, the director of the Brain Development Lab and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Oregon in Eugene, believes training parents as well as children in cognitive techniques can help to close early achievement gaps.
Neville has been named the winner of the 2011Transforming Education Through Neuroscience award, sponsored by the International Mind Brain Education Society and the Learning and the Brain Foundation, for her studies of parent and child cognitive training to improve attention.
Neville worked with more than 100 at-risk children in Head Start centers and their parents. The children, ages 3 to 5, received 40 minutes of training in attention for four days a week for eight weeks. A typical session might include watching snails travel from one point to another, or observing other children playing with balloons—activities requiring patience, focus, and mental self-control.
For one group of children, Neville and her colleagues provided weekly, two-hour training sessions for their parents on activities associated with improving cognitive focus in young children, such as using specific praise and positive enforcement; engaging the children in turn-taking conversations; and providing opportunities for the children to choose and solve problems.
The researchers found that training parents as well as children amplified the effects of the intervention. Neville found that for the group in which both parents and children received training, the children improved significantly in their attention, nonverbal IQ scores, associative memory and receptive language skills. Moreover, their parents reported significantly lower stress levels and improved child behavior.
The improvements have continued for a year and a half so far, and Neville and her colleagues just have received a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to continue tracking the students longitudinally to gauge whether the parent-child intervention, which costs $800 per student, will help them make better progress in elementary school. Neville also will track how these students' brains develop and organize themselves over time, as compared to students who have not received the training.
"I believe this is going to be one of those ground-breaking discoveries that will lead to all sorts of different discoveries," said Kurt W. Fischer, director of Harvard University's mind, brain, and education program, in a discussion of Neville's work at the Learning and the Brain conference in Boston last month.