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Parental intervention boosts education of kids at high risk of failure

18.02.2008
University of Oregon neuroscientists are using basic research findings to address real world problems

An eight-week-long intervention program aimed at parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds reaped significant educational benefits in their preschool-aged children, a University of Oregon research fellow reported today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In a news briefing (9 a.m. EST, “Poverty and the Brain”) and scientific session later in the day, Courtney Stevens, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Brain Development Lab of UO neuroscientist Helen J. Neville, described preliminary results of a parent-intervention portion of a larger study that also includes other approaches aimed at the children in a federal Head Start program in Oregon. The parent training program was developed by UO doctoral student Jessica Fanning, who recently completed her dissertation.

At the end of the intervention effort, participating parents reported dramatic reductions in family stress, including reduced behavioral problems, compared to parents in the control group. The UO researchers also documented, through testing and brain-wave scans, improvements in the children's language-acquisition skills, memory and cognitive abilities.

The experimental group included 14 children between 3 and 5 years old and their parents. The children underwent brain scans before and after the research period. The parents attended weekly 2.5-hour sessions in which they were coached on improved communication skills and strategies to use with their children to help control their behavior. At the end of testing, they were compared with results from a control group of 14 children who were tested and had brain scans at the beginning and end of the study period, but whose parents did not receive an intervention protocol.

Several other intervention strategies, including the use of music and attention training with small groups of children, were part of the project, but only data from the parental intervention were shared during a AAAS session on "Poverty and Brain Development: Correlations, Mechanisms, and Societal Implications" scheduled for 1:45 p.m.-4:45 p.m. EST.

"Our findings are important because they suggest that kids who are at high risk for school failure can be helped through these interventions," said Stevens, who earned master's and doctoral degrees at the UO and is currently a visiting faculty member at New York's Sarah Lawrence College. "Even with these small numbers of children, the parent training appears very promising.

"We are continuing to assess the parent training program," she added. "We are looking at the effects of the training on children's brain organization, using event-related brain potentials. We are following these children for the next few years to see whether the improvements we see after training persist and generalize to the school environment."

The intervention strategies, being tested with funding from the Institute of Education Science, were created after 30 years of basic research by Neville on the changeability of the human brain, supported primarily by the National Institutes of Health. Neville has studied children and adults with a variety of experiences, including deafness and blindness, to see impacts in the brain. She had found that the auditory cortex and areas of the brain associated with visual abilities -- for years thought to be genetically determined at birth -- rewire and adapt for other helpful uses.

Neville, who initially was scheduled to present the new findings, did not attend the AAAS meeting. She described her early work in an interview at the UO.

"We've identified different neuroplasticity profiles," Neville said. "Within vision, within hearing, within attention and within language some systems in the brain don't seem to change very much when experiences are very different, and others change remarkably. As we looked more into basic development and developmental disorders, these same systems that were enhanced in the deaf and blind were the same ones that appear to be most vulnerable and deficient in disorders such as dyslexia and specific language impairments.

"We've learned that plasticity is a double-edged sword," she said. "A system that is changeable can be enhanced, but it can also be very vulnerable to deficits if it doesn’t get the appropriate help at the right time."

Catching children while they are young is the right time, Neville said. Targeting children from families with low socioeconomic status makes sense, she said, because research in the United States, United Kingdom and several other countries has repeatedly shown a correlation between children's educational achievement and their parents' education and income levels.

"Knowing the plasticity profiles and learning which are most changeable provides us with an opportunity to help in the real world," she said. A societal payoff for such interventions is economic, she added. "The research is not just good for the children; it is good for the economy. "Economists say that investment in early education returns $18 for every dollar spent."

Jim Barlow | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.uoregon.edu

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