How parents help kids succeed
Leerkes examines impact of parenting on early child development
Healthy emotion regulation is imperative for children to achieve school readiness, but of course they can’t do it alone. Parents must be involved, points out HDFS professor Esther Leerkes. And, at every step, parents must provide age-appropriate guidance or children won’t internalize the correct skills.
“The quality of parenting matters. We know that how parents respond when a child is upset can help children learn to regulate their emotions — which in turn affects their early cognitive development and school readiness,” she says. “We also know if children struggle emotionally, they are more likely to struggle academically.”
Inside Leerkes’ lab, parents and young children are completing a treasure hunt. They must find the best route for a bear to cross a body of water and reach a prize on an island. While the child’s goal is getting to the treasure, the research team’s objective is to determine how differing parenting styles affect a child’s emotional and cognitive abilities and early readiness for school.
The kids and adults are participants in the School Transition and Academic Readiness (STAR) project. With over $6 million in funding over the last decade from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Leerkes and her collaborators are following over 500 children from age 4 to the first grade.
It matters, she says, whether parents engage children in stimulating ways. The adults can choose to withdraw from the game, take it over, or engage the child and guide him or her through the process, helping them understand and make decisions.
The most successful children, she says, have emotionally supportive parents. They were involved in play and offered age-appropriate guidance, praise, and encouragement. Children faltered when parents took charge, became frustrated, or didn’t participate at all. Children were also more likely to lose interest, appear bored, or withdraw when parents pushed too hard or became negative.
Leerkes’ team also assesses the children’s physiological and neural activity as they problem solve. For example, the team puts each child through a Stroop test. These tests tax participants by requiring them to inhibit their initial responses — a child might be required to say the word “night” when they see a picture of the sun. The researchers observe which regions of the brain are active, and they record how many picture presentations the children get right.
They’re looking to see, Leerkes says, what types of brain activity correlate to high performance levels. One day, their findings could help predict a child’s level of academic performance and perhaps even help identify children who need early interventions.
In another study with infants and toddlers, the team monitors both parents and children as children are presented with frightening or frustrating situations. Leerkes’ team has found that a younger child’s emotional control is strongly linked to the caregiver’s behavior and emotions. If parents exhibit frustration, irritation, or anxiety — identified by elevated heart rates accompanied by poor regulation — children aren’t as able to control their emotions and behavior. To minimize a child’s exposure to negativity, Leerkes suggests that parents pay attention to their own emotions while interacting with their children. Imagine your child’s perspective, she advises, and calm yourself by pausing to take deep breaths and relax when you can feel your own strong emotions rising.
When parent-child interaction is positive, everyone benefits, Leerkes says. Children develop better emotional control, and they use that skill to maintain their attention and manage their frustration, both critical for adaptive peer relationships and active engagement in school. And parents proudly watch their children succeed in school transitions.
The best foot forward. It’s what we all want for our children in those first few years. But, the question is — how do we get there? Nationally and locally, debates rage. It’s difficult to find consensus on the best way to educate our children or even prepare them to be educated. One thing we can be sure of? It’s no simple task. It will require a lot of work and collaboration to get it right.
UNCG is leading the way. Here, researchers have investigated — sometimes for years — what it takes to make sure children are healthy and ready to learn. And, now, investigators are combining their knowledge, resources, and networks to meet these challenges directly. Faculty and staff, from the UNCG Department of Human Development and Family Studies to the UNCG Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships, conduct basic research, translate research into evidence-based practice, and help create local, state, and national educational policy. As they reach out to families, help towns and cities identify and intervene with struggling children, and teach professionals vital skills for the classroom, these investigators have one goal in mind — giving every child the right start.