November 3, 1995

Talk to your children to help them succeed

By Mary Jane Dunlap

Two KU researchers keep it simple when offering parents tips to help their children succeed in school and life.

Talk to your babies and toddlers, talk to them a lot and encourage them to respond.

The payoff can be big when the children enter school, according to Betty M. Hart and Todd Risley, KU human development researchers.

They will speak at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 in Alderson Auditorium of the Kansas Union on "Advantage and Disadvantage: The Everyday Experience of Young Children."

In their book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Hart and Risley report that parents can have a startling impact on their children's intellectual development simply by talking to their infants and encouraging and guiding them as toddlers.

Language development in a child's early years is the bedrock for success later in school and in life, Hart says. Their book is based on a six-year study showing that differences in lengths of time parents spent interacting with their infants translated later into differences in vocabulary growth rate and achievement on IQ tests.

Hart and Risley conducted the study with families in the Kansas City metropolitan area when they were working at KU's Juniper Gardens Children's Project in Kansas City, Kan.

The study evolved from their experiences during the War on Poverty in the 1960s and 1970s. When Hart and Risley found the vocabulary growth of Headstart toddlers from poor families began to drop at age 4, the researchers began to look for causes.

They studied children from age 7 years, 9 months to age 3 in 42 families whose socioeconomic status and racial composition was mixed. They concluded that by age 4, a child from an advantaged, college-educated family may hear 45 million words. A 4-year-old from a welfare family may hear only 15 million.

Risley said: "The other part of it is that a child from an advantaged, educated home will hear something like 700,000 affirmations by age four - parents affirming, `You're doing something an adult finds important and interesting. A child from a welfare family will hear about 100,000 affirmations by age 4."

Genetics may account for part of a child's development potential. But scientists concede that part relates to nurturing, Risley said.

"Being a parent is the hardest job in the world," Hart said. She and Risley believe their study demonstrates a need to focus on parenting.

"You need to think about how people get experience being parents. The only way they know how to parent is how they were parented," Risley said. "You don't have to solve the problem in a generation," he said. "That's what we thought we could do in the War on Poverty."

He and Hart recommend programs where children gain experience with adults who talk with them a lot and deal with them with courtesy. They also recommend programs that give parents guidance.

"You don't need a big vocabulary to talk to a 2-year-old. All words are new to a baby. Everything a parent says and does is interesting," Hart said. Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to cite the KU researchers in her forthcoming book "It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us."

Federal grants enabled Hart and Risley to observe the 42 families in the Kansas City area, many of whom keep in touch with the researchers. The families allowed researchers in their home for an hour a month to record a slice of daily life. Observers recorded all language and interaction between parent and child in each session for more than two years.

Hart is a senior scientist in KU's Institute for Life Span Studies and has a courtesy appointment in the Department of Human Development and Family Life at KU. Risley is an adjunct professor of human development and family life at KU and is professor of psychology at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, where he lives..

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