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Home Nurse Visits Help Prepare Low-Income Children for School, Research Finds

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Home nurse visits in the earliest stages of a child's life can have lasting impacts on their academic readiness and achievement into adulthood, according to new research published in the Journal Pediatrics.

The findings come from a couple of 18-year follow-up studies on the effects of a program that connects nurses with low-income mothers.

The research provides a rare, randomized look at the impacts of supporting needy children in the earliest stages of life and underscores the idea that setting children up to succeed academically starts long before even preschool.

All mothers in the studies received transportation for prenatal care visits plus developmental screenings for their children after they were born.
But one group, randomly selected, also had regular, at-home check-ins with nurses during their pregnancy and through the first two years of their children's lives as part of a program, the Nurse-Family Partnership, that promotes prenatal and childhood health among first-time mothers. Additionally, the program encourages mothers to finish their own schooling, find work, and plan any subsequent pregnancies.  

Those nurse home visits make a difference: Researchers found that children whose mothers received nurse visits had higher math achievement and receptive language skills—the ability to understand what people say to them—at the 18-year mark than those who did not participate in the program. They also had stronger working memories and were better able to accurately read the emotions of others.

And while the program did not appear to affect the graduation rates of children who participated, those that did were twice as likely to graduate from high school with honors.

"I would say that the opportunity to make a difference in children's and families' lives begins far earlier than children entering preschool," said David Olds, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and one of the researchers. "We have replicated evidence now that we can help children to be better prepared to enter preschool."

Olds and his collaborators also found that the program had lasting effects on the mothers who participated—they became much more economically self-sufficient. Not only did they rely a lot less on public programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, they were also more likely to be married throughout their children's youth.

The studies included over 700 low-income, mostly African American mothers in Memphis, and the 18-year assessment included 629 young adults.

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