- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2008

Preschool-aged children from low-income families showed notable improvement in cognitive ability and other brain function after their parents received an eight-week training course in communication and child-rearing techniques, a new report has found.

Scientists at the University of Oregon plan to do more work in this area but presented their preliminary findings yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a nonprofit group that publishes the journal Science.

They conducted the research as part of a larger ongoing study of brain development in high-risk youngsters who are part of a federal Head Start program.

In this part of their study, 28 children between the ages of 3 and 5, underwent brain scans and various standardized language and IQ tests before and after the research period. Then, during an eight-week period, parents of 14 of those children attended weekly small group meetings where they learned evidence-based strategies to improve communication with their children, promote children’s critical thinking skills and decrease family stress, according to the researchers. Parents of the remaining 14 children — the control group — received no training.

At the end of the eight weeks, researchers compared test results of the children in both groups. Testers didn’t know to which group each child belonged.

They found that children whose parents received the training showed larger increases in standardized measures of language, IQ, memory, and attention compared with children in the control group.

“We were actually fairly astonished at the magnitude of the changes,” said Helen Neville, an Oregon neuroscience professor who leads the school’s Brain Development Lab. The professor, who holds a doctoral degree in neuropsychology, has spent 30 years studying the brain and its ability to change, and her work has been supported primarily by the National Institutes of Health, according to Oregon University information.

Among the findings, the average IQ score of children whose parents received training improved by six IQ points, while the score of the control group children showed no statistically significant change, she said.

The former group of children also showed improvements in receptive language skills, which is basically the ability to understand and follow direction. Their average score in the beginning was 100 standardized points, but increased to 110 points after their parents received training, she said, while the average standardized score of control group children in this test area didn’t change.

The parent training program was developed by Oregon University doctoral student Jessica Fanning, who recently competed her dissertation.

The professor said her team tried to determine whether this type of parental training program affects a child’s cognitive development and brain development.

“It does,” she said, adding it’s important to note that the youngsters themselves didn’t receive any special tutoring or help during this time.

Parents who received the training also benefited, reporting lower stress levels than the control parents and displaying changes in interactions with their children — like allowing more opportunities for their child to talk and guide the interaction, the researchers found.

“Our findings are important because they suggest that kids who are at high risk for school failure can be helped through these interventions,” said Courtney Stevens, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Brain Development Lab who presented the preliminary findings. “Even with these small numbers of children, the parent training appears very promising.”

The researchers will do another study with another group of children to see whether they can repeat their findings. They also will track the children over the long term.

The goal, they said, is to eventually be able to show policy-makers the best ways to design educational programs.

Parental training is just one intervention being tested: Researchers are also testing the use of music and attention training with high-risk children. According to University of Oregon materials, this research is being funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, which is part of the Department of Education.

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