Helping Kids Get a Great Start

Education reports provide stark information about school readiness. They indicate that less than half of the children in Washington State enter school kindergarten-ready, and that only a quarter of the lowest-income students have the necessary preparation. Teachers find it difficult to help these students catch up on basic skills. Too many children who start behind stay behind, say education leaders.

I-LABS researchers are investigating the “preparation gap” behind these statistics. The science suggests that reducing the gap requires a focus on learning during the first five years of a child’s life.

“Children begin preparing to read early in childhood as they listen to language, play rhyming games and begin to identify letters,” says Institute Co-Director Patricia Kuhl. “Parents who read to children every day are providing valuable stimulation that sets the stage for life-long literacy.”

Not all parents take time daily to read and talk to young children, however. Recent brain research at I-LABS by post-doctoral fellow Raj Raizada, now a faculty member at Cornell University, looked at the pre-reading skills of children at the age of 5, before they attended school. He examined brain activation in the children while they listened for rhyming words. (Rhyming skills predict reading skills.) A brain scanner recorded the neural regions that were active while children worked on the task. The findings were a surprise: The strongest predictor of brain activation in Broca’s area – the brain area actively involved in language and learning to read – was the educational and occupational status of the child’s parents. Even when the child’s skill level was taken out of the equation, a parent’s education and occupation predicted the child’s Broca’s activation.

While this association does not prove a causal link, I-LABS researchers began to wonder how a parent’s education and occupation might be connected to their child’s brain responses to words. The researchers investigated many factors – the child’s general health, IQ and other cognitive skills – and none of these factors accounted for the association. They began to consider whether parents with less education provide less complex language stimulation for their children.

I-LABS researchers recorded language samples from the parents while they read to and talked with their 5-year-olds. Analyses showed that parents with more education and higher occupational status used more varied word choices and complex syntax when talking to their children compared to parents with lower education and occupational status.

Further analyses showed a direct correlation between the complexity of the language input from parents and the amount of grey matter in critical regions for language in their children’s brains. These brain-imaging results provide the first evidence that the richness of the language environment in a home directly influences the brain of a child growing up in that home, furthering our understanding of how the environment affects the brain. We think this result applies not only in the case of language, but also to the child’s early socio-emotional brain development.

Studying children’s brain development at even younger ages will allow I-LABS researchers to discover how early opportunities for learning sculpt brain development. Studies that connect children’s early intellectual skills, their

developing brain, and the stimulation they experience will provide the information needed to design targeted and cost-effective intervention programs that will get all children ready for school – regardless of their parents’ education, income or occupation.

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