National Geographic : 2015 Jan
first year 77 negative experiences.” And that, Fox says, is the best news: Some of the debilitating effects of early deprivation can be addressed with appro- priate nurturing, as long as it is provided within a critical period of development. A parental training program led by neuro- scientist Helen Neville at the University of Or- egon in Eugene aims to do just that. The research- ers sign up participants from among families enrolled in Head Start, a U.S. government pro- gram that gives a leg up to preschoolers from low-income families. Parents or care providers come in for a class every week over a two-month period. In the first few classes they get tips on lowering the stress involved in the day-to-day care of children. As any parent can testify, these stresses can at times be overwhelming to even the most Zen-like among us, and they can feel even more burdensome to parents dealing with finan- cial worries. “You find yourself on edge because you don’t have certain things,” says Patricia Kycek, a Eugene mom who’s taken the classes. Parents learn to emphasize positive reinforce- ment, expressing praise for specific accomplish- ments. “We encourage them to shift the focus from scolding your child every time they are doing something wrong to noticing every time they are doing something right,” explains Sarah Burlingame, a former parent instructor. In later weeks parents learn how to stimulate the child. In one activity that they are encouraged to try at home, the parent asks the child to pick out various objects—a spoon, a bottle, a pen—and guess which will float and which will sink. Then the child gets to test each prediction in a bucket of water or in the bathtub. The children receive training in attention and self-control in a 40-minute session ev- ery week. They work on focusing on a task in the midst of distractions—for instance, color- ing inside the lines of figures while other kids bounce balloons all around. Instructors also teach them to better identify their emotions through a game called Emotional Bingo, in which children match states like “happy” and “sad” with facial expressions. In some later classes the kids learn to practice calming tech- niques, like taking a deep breath when they are upset. At the end of the eight weeks the research- ers evaluate the kids on language, nonverbal IQ, and attention. Through a questionnaire given to the parents, they also assess how the kids are doing behaviorally. In a paper published in July 2013, Neville and her colleagues reported that kids in Head Start who received the interven- tion showed significantly higher increases on these measures than those who did not. Par- ents reported experiencing much lower stress in managing their children. “When you change parenting and stress level goes down, that leads to increased emotional regulation and better cognition for the kids,” Neville says. Tana Argo, a young mother of four, decided to go through the program to make sure she wouldn’t subject her children to the kind of ne- glect that she had suffered as a child. “I grew up with a lot of stress and drama,” she says. “I told myself, I’m going to remember this with my kids. This won’t happen to my kids.” What she learned—she says—has altered the family’s dynamic, creating more time for play and learning. When I visit her at home one after- noon, she describes how happy she felt a few days earlier when she saw her four-year-old daugh- ter—the youngest—plop down on the carpet to thumb through a children’s encyclopedia. As I’m leaving, I notice the encyclopedia resting on top of a stack of books, most of them for children. In the best of circumstances, that stack would perhaps serve as a wall against the generational dominoes of poverty and neglect, helping Argo’s kids build a future that she never had a shot at. j MORE ONLINE ngm.com/more VIDEO TELEVISION Baby’s- Eye View Test Your Brain Now you know how a baby’s brain works, but what about your own? Learn why you forget your keys, what your dreams mean, and more on the National Geographic Channel series, Brain Games.