About six months ago, my son began receiving services to address his acute anxiety and sensory over-stimulation issues. Felix was four years old at the time, and experiencing extreme problems socializing in his pre-K classroom. He was also, to put it mildly, a handful at home — defiant, quick to lose his temper, and in such need of adult attention that he rarely played alone.
“He’s a challenging child,” my wife and I used to tell people when he was a toddler. But as the years went on and the challenges increased, we knew something was wrong. Finally, at the advice of his teachers, we sought a psychological evaluation to get both Felix and us some help.
For about half of his time at school Felix worked with a Special Education Itinerant Teacher, trained to help children deal with the kinds of behaviors he exhibited. When she found techniques that calmed him down or defused his tension, she’d share them with my wife and I to use at home. On the weekends, Felix saw (and continues to see) a play therapist, who communicated her insights into his psychology with us. And I see a therapist myself, who has experience working with children. We spend time every session discussing and analyzing my parenting.
Felix is a kid with special needs, and so we had to get special help to know how to best parent him. Now, at 5, he’s a very different kid. He’s making friends, taking great pleasure from his successes in school, and maturing in leaps and bounds. He has hiccups and problems like any kid, sure, but they’re not so out-of-control. You can see him figuring out not just how the world works, but how his thoughts and feelings work too, whereas before he’d be overwhelmed. It’s amazing.
A recent article in The Economist addresses the importance of early intervention for both kids and parents. It reports on a study done by the Brookings Institution which found that more so than race, family size, the parent’s education level, or the neighborhood environment, parenting is the biggest indicator of a child’s cognitive development. If you provide your child intellectual stimulation and emotional support, then your child is going to achieve to the best of his or her abilities.
There appears to be a direct relationship between income level and parenting ability. Using a rating of parenting effectiveness called the HOME scale, researchers at the Brookings Institution assessed almost half of the poorest moms and dads in their study as weak or ineffective as parents. These parents surely love their children, but are not providing them with the best assistance to achieve to their fullest. Because of this “parenting gap,” kids who already face poverty-related challenges are falling even further behind.
The study identifies a vicious cycle, wherein people who themselves might not have had the most encouraging, helpful parents are now unable to provide their children proper guidance and support. More programs for pre-K aged children would begin to address this problem. As The Economist reports, 100 percent of the 3-5 year olds in France are enrolled in formal child care or preschool, while only 67 percent of their American counterparts are. Which is why we desperately need universal preschool in the United States!
The Economist describes how in some parts of the U.S., parent educators visit homes to teach moms and dads how to prepare their children for school, discipline without corporal punishment, and keep them healthy. Parent educators may intervene early when they identify a child as having developmental problems, or leave behind books for both the kids and parents. I believe we need more of these programs, too. As we all know, parenting is tough work, and sometimes we need help. My wife and I were fortunate enough to live in New York City, where such services are easy to find, but they should be available across the country.
The problem is, as the Brookings Institution report makes clear, these programs don’t have solid political backing from either the left or the right. Richard V. Reeves, the Policy Director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families and author of the Parenting Gap study, writes: “Conservatives are comfortable with the notion that parents and families matter, but too often simply blame the parents for whatever goes wrong. They resist the notion that government has a role in promoting good parenting.” While liberals “have no qualms about deploying expensive public policies, but are wary of any suggestion that parents — especially poor and/or black parents — are in some way responsible for the constrained life chances of their children.”
The Economist points to other studies that have found early intervention does not make a significant impact on the child’s long-term academic success. However, it does instill better discipline and perseverance, making it more likely that the child will graduate from high school and land a good salaried job, and decrease the chances the child will one day be arrested. This makes sense to me. The help my wife and I have gotten for our son has enabled him to bring forth his natural gifts more fully. Every child deserves to grow up in a home where he or she is seen as an individual, and where they are nurtured in the way that they need. Universal preschool and early intervention programs would help insure this is the case in more households in the United States. And if your child is in need of assistance, or if you feel like you’re in need of help, don’t feel ashamed in reaching out for it. The first five years are essential in giving your child a solid base from which to grow into a functioning, healthy young adult. Don’t neglect intervening now, and nipping any cognitive or developmental issues in the bud.