OpinionPandemic  

Roberts: Parent Coaching Can Relieve Stress, Bolster Babies’ Language Skills and Create a Deeper Sense of Community

By Carly Roberts | September 16, 2020

Before my son was born, I spent my career devoted to education and early childhood. I thought I knew everything there was to know about raising a child. But the first time my son shouted a bold “NO!” after I asked him not to throw his dinner on the floor, I froze. Should I scold him? Celebrate his exploration of gravity and physics? Help him understand what the look on my face means? I realized that despite my on-the-job experience, there was so much I didn’t know about supporting his development.

With so many young children at home due to closures of child care centers, questions like these are more top of mind than ever for parents.

We know the early years of a child’s life are critical, and that supporting learning from birth to age 5 (and beyond) is key to setting children up for success in school and in life. Children who enter school with key readiness skills have an 82 percent chance of mastering basic skills by age 11, compared with 45 percent for young children who are not “kindergarten ready.” Yet too many enter school already at a disadvantage.

We also know that parents and families are a key and often untapped resource in helping children develop to their full potential. Families are poised and motivated to be their children’s champions, coaches and teachers before they ever reach a school’s doors. Studies show that parenting practices like building responsive relationships and engaging in language-rich interactions impact kindergarten readiness. But as every parent knows, practices proven in scientific research are often difficult to enact at home amid the challenges that come with an infant, toddler or preschooler. 

Fortunately, support is available for parents in the form of coaching, which can help address the added stress of COVID-19 and fill the void left by the closures of child care centers and services that previously supported parents and children. Organizations such as Centering Healthcare Institute, LENA and Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, all grantees of Overdeck Family Foundation, provide assistance that resonates across populations and settings, helping parents (and other caregivers) learn strategies to support their children’s development.

While parent coaching takes many different forms, we’ve found two recurring themes that open the doors of possibility. The first is that a little bit of coaching can make a big difference. This is true across both one-on-one and group coaching interventions. For example, the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences found that parents who received three 45-minute coaching sessions on using “parentese” — grammatical speech with real words, longer, exaggerated vowels and a sing-song tone of voice — with their babies helped to accelerate children’s language skills at 10, 14 and even 18 months as compared with a control group. These babies babbled more and used more words. In other words, a few coaching sessions greatly impacted children’s early language development.

The second lesson is that there may be ancillary benefits to group, rather than individual, coaching. The former is lower-cost in many cases, and it gives parents the opportunity to connect to one another, strengthening their commitment not only to a program but to their community as well. 

Many nonprofits take a group approach to parent coaching. For instance, LENA uses data from “talk pedometers” — small, wearable devices that count the number of words and verbal exchanges — to coach parents to increase conversation with their young children, while building social capital within the parent peer group. Children whose parents participate in the program accelerate their language development by an average of 31 percentage points, approximately double the impact we’ve seen from similar one-to-one interventions; they also maintain those gains a year later. (These are results from in-person interventions; the program, like most, is now virtual.)

Similarly, Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors offers 10-session group parenting classes in both Spanish and English that promote school readiness and family well-being, as well as parental connection. These classes increase parents’ knowledge of language and literacy development while increasing engagement in activities known to improve kindergarten readiness, such as letter recognition games. Of course, in the context of social distancing, in-person group models are not always feasible. Some organizations have incorporated virtual groups, while others have held outdoor distanced groups in parks and parking lots. These adaptations are new, but they show promise at filling a support void for parents of young children.

Centering Healthcare Institute has long been a proponent and practitioner of group-based prenatal services, and its model has resulted in impressive results: Families who participate in CenteringPregnancy show a 33 percent to 47 percent decreased risk of preterm birth, better attendance for prenatal and postpartum visits, and greater readiness for birth and infant care than those in traditional care. Centering is now helping member sites take its prenatal and pediatric programs virtual, providing new parents with an opportunity to learn via video evidence-based practices that align with children’s developmental milestones. Given how crucial the first few months are after birth, and the additional risks posed by social isolation to new mothers, these programs feel more important than ever.

All parents want to support their child, but not all have the tools and resources to translate that desire into action. This is especially true during a global pandemic that has left families with little support and disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities. Many families have experienced or will experience illness, death, separations, job loss, homelessness, food insecurity or financial hardship because of the pandemic, each adding stressors that negatively impact children’s development. This is why funding and expanding the reach of organizations that coach parents of young children is so important. While they are just one part of a larger ecosystem of support, these programs can reduce social isolation and help families give their children a strong foundation for early learning. 

Parents have always been a child’s first teachers and greatest champions. In 2020, bolstering that role is no longer optional; it’s integral to improving children’s outcomes.

Carly Roberts is a senior program officer at the Overdeck Family Foundation.

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