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The Achievement High-Five

Five earliest-learning interventions for parents of infants and toddlers
photo of male baby

Eliminating the persistent inequities that constrain the potential of poor and minority students will take more than just school-based improvements, says Ronald Ferguson, the director of the Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI) at Harvard University. Research indicates that a gap in language, gesturing, and other developmental markers begins to open by age 2, Ferguson says — even though there are virtually no racial or social class differences in the mental abilities of infants before age 1. “So we need to get started well before school,” Ferguson says. “We need to start in the crib.”

With his new project, Seeding Success, Ferguson has developed a set of guidelines for parents and early caregivers that seek to influence parenting behavior and affect outcomes far down the road. Ferguson and his AGI colleagues, working with a national advisory committee, have surveyed the literature about early childhood development and how parents affect achievement. From this, they created five simple strategies for parents of children ages 0 to 3 — approaches to parenting that enhance bonding and support growth. He is planning a community-outreach campaign — starting in Boston and ultimately becoming national — to spread the message about the “Fundamental Five” through an easy-to-use resource guide to be distributed at doctors’ offices, community agencies, daycare centers, and other places where parents turn for care and assistance.

The Fundamental Five: Activities to Support Early-Childhood Development

  1. Maximize loving responsiveness and minimize stress, beginning at birth and especially later. Responsive parenting — reacting consistently and promptly to an infant’s needs, cues, and verbalizations — is a significant predictor of healthy social, emotional, and cognitive development.
  2. Talk, sing, and gesture a lot, beginning at birth. Use real talk more than baby talk, from the very beginning, and encourage children to gesture during word learning, pointing to objects that you’re naming. Gaps in language development, well documented between more and less advantaged children, tend to predict later gaps in literacy and school success.
  3. Use number games and rhythm to lay the foundations for numeracy. Mathematical knowledge and skills begin to emerge early, as do gaps in skills. Parents may tend to prioritize language-related activities, but research suggests that math activities that build understanding of early concepts like matching, sorting, cardinality, comparing, and ordering is key to later achievement.
  4. Enable and encourage three-dimensional competencies — skills at maneuvering (crawling and walking) in cluttered spaces and manipulating three-dimensional objects.
  5. Cultivate a love of learning through conversations during book reading and travel; interact with your child to remember, explain, and anticipate together. Research has begun to show the importance of “mind-body” connections — or embodiment — in the development of young children, and that motor development corresponds with a child’s explorations of objects and spaces.

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