Having consistent nurturing from reliable adults makes a big difference too, as does playtime. What these practices have in common is time and focus, scarce commodities for low-income and poor parents dealing with economic insecurity about their jobs, their ability to retain housing, their relationships, and even where their next meal will come from. Research shows that parents with means spend much more time with their kids than those with less during the crucial developmental period before they enter formal schooling, and that the effects magnify over time.
A 2013 study by Kimberly Howard and Richard Reeves of the Center for Children and Families at the Brookings Institution found that the children of parents who provided the least cognitive stimulation and emotional support had worse outcomes in educational achievement, income, and avoiding life events that depressed their situation, such as having kids early in life or ending up with a criminal record. And the benefits increase over time.
There is some evidence that the situation can be improved. Howard and Reeves found that helping the parents with the least resources can improve some of their practices, and bringing them to the level of what parents with average means did made a meaningful difference. Of the children whose parents made positive changes, 9 percent more graduated from high school, 6 percent fewer had kids of their own by age 19, and 3 percent fewer had criminal convictions by 19.
But what are the best interventions to help parents take up the practices that will make them better at preparing their kids from the start?
One approach that's been tested is to have home visits to support parents-to-be and new parents. A federally funded program, created as part of the Affordable Care Act, that sends nurses and other health professionals into the homes of expectant and new mothers was renewed in April for $400 million over two years.
Other approaches involve group workshops that connect parents of young children to each other and to practices that support their children's cognitive development. And others even use technology to address the "word gap."
The main challenge for many of these projects is that they require one-on-one interventions over several years, with the attendant personnel and funding. And none really address the disruptions to stable families caused by forced job mobility, incarceration, or addiction.
And the data to support the efficacy of these programs is just starting to come in, just in time for the ramp-up to the 2016 presidential race. A study of home visitation programs for young mothers found that they were more likely to continue school, and showed improved parenting. And a team at the University of California, San Francisco is following what's happening in a program started last year in two hospitals in Oakland, California, that has pediatricians provide parents with information on how to improve early literacy.
Overall, investing in parents to help them interact more meaningfully with their infants shows the potential to come closer to leveling the field for poorer kids when they enter school.