New UO intervention brings big gains for Head Start children and parents

Neville (left) and Klein found major improvements in preschoolers’ behavior
Neville (left) and Klein found major improvements in preschoolers’ behavior

A new University of Oregon initiative produced significant improvements in preschoolers’ behavior and families’ quality of life for those under the poverty line, UO researchers found.

An eight-week intervention involving 141 preschoolers in a Head Start program and their parents produced major gains in the children's behavior and brain functions supporting attention and reduced levels of parental stress that, in turn, improved the families' quality of life.

The findings — from the first phase of a long-term research project by UO neuroscientists that will monitor the families over time — appeared recently online in advance of regular publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The UO initiative is designed as an addition to the regular Head Start program, which was launched by the federal government in 1965 to enhance the education, health, nutrition and parental involvement for families living under the poverty line.

A preliminary economic analysis, not included in the new study, estimates that implementing the program widely at Head Start sites would add just $800 per family and could yield a strong return on investment, said project leader Helen Neville, who holds the UO's Robert and Beverly Lewis Endowed Chair in Psychology and heads the Brain Development Lab.

"This intervention didn't come out of thin air," Neville said. "It came out of basic research on neural plasticity that we have done in our lab for many decades." Neural plasticity refers to the brain's ability to shape and reshape itself over a lifetime.

"We've studied neural plasticity by looking at deaf people, blind people, children with language impairments, bilinguals and typical people," Neville said. "We've found that some systems of the brain don't show much neural plasticity. Some show a lot but only in a specific time period. So we targeted this second kind of system, focusing on selective attention of the developing brain."

Children from lower socioeconomic status often have more problems with attention skills than do children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, because, on average, they have more difficulty suppressing, or ignoring, non-attended information. Such difficulties likely arise as children in lower socioeconomic families grow up amid chaos and unpredictable environments, Neville said.

The UO team developed learning exercises, including games, appropriate for kids ages 3-5. The exercises require clear focus from the children, said co-author Scott Klein, a research assistant in the Brain Development Lab.

Parents or other primary caregivers attended weekly two-hour sessions in which they learned standard parenting practices that build strong relationships and about the value of the attention skills their children were receiving. Much of the discussion centered on reducing negative components of parenting and fostering a positive atmosphere, such as providing guided choices for children, establishing expectations and praising good behaviors, Klein said.

A control group of children and parents engaged only in traditional Head Start programming. A second experimental group included the children's learning exercises but less parental involvement.

"The more parent-focused program was the clear winner," Neville said. The children showed significant improvements in their ability to focus – gains that are holding up over time, based on subsequent preliminary data from ongoing brain-monitoring assessments, she added.

The children's selective attention abilities, as seen in event-related brain potentials, were measured before and after the intervention using non-invasive electroencephalography, which records electrical activity along the scalp. The children also were evaluated for changes in cognitive abilities with standardized assessments of non-verbal IQ and language skills, both of which rose significantly in children whose parents received training.

In families where both the children and caregivers received the interventions, children were more likely to perform similarly to children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, and caregivers reported significant reductions of stress in the home, particularly in dealing with their children.

Many parents, Klein said, reported feeling as if portions of their personal lives had been restored, opening time for reading and outside activities.

Back in the classroom, Neville said, improvements were visible. "With the children having changes at home that help their attention — this is a multiplier. It helps in learning in the classroom, playing games and sports. It helps kids focus. It is rewarding for the kids and for the parents. With less stress, the children are better able to focus their attention."

Co-authors also included Courtney Stevens, assistant professor of psychology at Willamette University, a former member of the Brain Development Lab while completing her master's degree and doctorate at the UO; Theodore A. Bell, adjunct research associate; Jessica Fanning, professor in the UO Department of Communication Disorders and Sciences; and psychology doctoral student Elif Isbell.

- from the UO Office of Strategic Communications