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A Conversation With Jeanne Brooks-Gunn

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Dr. Brooks-Gunn spoke about family involvement programs during a recent Q&A.

Issue Topic: Evaluating Family Involvement Programs

Questions & Answers

A Conversation With Jeanne Brooks-Gunn

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn is the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child Development at Teachers College and at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, both at Columbia University. She specializes in policy-oriented research focusing on family and community influences on the development of children, youth, and families. Her research centers on designing and evaluating interventions aimed at enhancing the well-being of children living in poverty and associated conditions. Dr. Brooks-Gunn has authored over 400 published articles and 17 books. Together with Sharon Lynn Kagan, she directs the National Center on Children and Families.1

Over the last decade, what have been the breakthrough findings in our knowledge of how family processes and the home environment influence child development?

We now have better answers to four questions: (1) do parents matter?, (2) how do parents matter?, (3) is it possible to change parenting behavior through intervention programs?, and (4) if we can change parents' behavior, will children be more prepared for school?

Some scholars have questioned the premise that parents matter, their assertions widely publicized in the media. However, research-based rebuttals of the idea that parents don't matter have appeared.2 Evidence from studies of children who are adopted, are exposed to cocaine parentally, are identical twins, and whose parents receive intervention all indicate that parenting does matter. In terms of how it matters, parents engage in lots of activities with and for their children; in a recent article, Markman and I identified seven different dimensions of parenting behavior: (1) nurturance, (2) language, (3) discipline, (4) materials in the home, (5) monitoring, (6) management of the home, and (7) direct teaching of skills to children.3

Different aspects of parenting are associated with different indicators of school readiness. Vocabulary, math skills, prereading skills, impulse control, relationships with peers, and approaches to learning are the most frequently studied aspects of school readiness. Language and learning materials in the home are the parenting behaviors most highly linked with vocabulary and early school achievement; discipline and nurturance are most closely associated with behavior problems, attention, and impulse control.

Differences in parenting behavior are seen between poor and not-poor children. The variation is especially large for those aspects of parenting most linked to school success: language, materials in the home, and teaching. We estimate that about 1/3 to 1/2 of the variation in school outcomes between poor and not-poor children can be accounted for by differences in parenting.

Parenting behaviors are amenable to intervention. In a review4 that assessed home-visiting programs, center-based early childhood education, literacy programs, and parent training programs in terms of their effects on parenting, my colleagues and I found that home-visiting and center-based educational programs have similarly large effects on parenting behavior. Also, parent training programs, offered to families that have a child with moderate to severe behavior problems, also alter parenting behavior.5 Literacy programs show the weakest effects, although new, more focused programs, such as that developed by Whitehurst,6 show quite impressive effects.

Do such program effects on parents translate into gains in children's school readiness? Home-visiting programs, by and large, have not shown effects on children. Why?7 For one, many home-visiting programs are not very intensive; that is, families do not receive many visits. Only a few programs, such as the Nurse Home Visitation Program,8 have been able to deliver a sizeable number of home visits. Margaret Burchinal, Mike Lopez, and I divided the sites in the Comprehensive Child Development Program9 into two groups based on the number of completed home visits per family in each site. Those sites that had more home visits showed positive effects in the treatment group, while those that had fewer visits did not. Additionally, many home-visiting programs use paraprofessionals to deliver services; this may result in huge variation in service delivery. Home-visiting programs differ in what types of services they offer and in the rigorousness of their training and quality control. All of these factors might account for the general lack of positive effects on children.

Evaluations of center-based programs with a parenting component also have shown great success in enhancing mother-child interactions. In some cases these programs have increased how frequently parents read to their child and the amount of learning materials in the home. These programs also have cognitive effects on the child. The largest multisite programs, like Early Head Start and the Infant Health and Development Program,10 allow us to see how much of the treatment effects on children are mediated through effects on parents. Effects on parents account for 20-50% of child treatment effects.11 We may not be seeing these effects in the home-visiting programs because some portion of the effects on children's cognitive development is happening directly rather than through the parents.

These findings suggest that intensive home visiting coupled with center-based programs may be a good strategy for enhancing school readiness. However, we are missing counterfactual evidence. Because there exist almost no early childhood programs that do not have a parenting component, we do not know if programs without a home-visiting component would be equally effective in enhancing school readiness.

We do know that very specific book-reading interventions also are effective. That said, book reading is only one of the many experiences important for children's emerging literacy. Changing the literacy environment around books and reading is possible. It is something we can model, so many interventions have focused on that. However, research suggests that a huge range of literacy activities are happening all the time in the home, through talking, playing with toys, looking at cereal boxes. The more parents are using rich, complex talk with their children and asking them questions, the better children will do in kindergarten.

Given the focus on experimental evaluations at the federal level, is there a role for nonexperimental work?

There is nothing more useful than an experiment, both for theory and practice. I am particularly interested in seeing more evaluations that test different sets of interventions rather than having just one treatment and control group. Of course, even experiments have limitations, but they offer less possibility of bias than other designs, such as matching or time-series designs.12 I do think that longitudinal data are incredibly valuable, as long as we cope carefully with issues like breadth, selection bias, and inference.

What are new directions for research, evaluation, and practice in family-focused interventions?

In general, I would like to see more research and evaluation exploring treatment intensity, timing, and dose. We also need to look more closely at service delivery. We need programs that help link preschool and kindergarten experiences, and we must follow through high school children who received preschool education.

One new direction for research is in the area of fathering-getting fathers involved and changing fathering behaviors. Initiatives are still in their infancy, so we still have a lot to learn. As for practice and policy, it would be good to see more programs that combine elements of the successful programs. We also need to consider how programs are targeted and what we can do from a policy standpoint to ensure effective programs are being offered to families that are most likely to benefit from them. We should also consider whether parent involvement should be more included in the whole prekindergarten movement.

Is there sufficient shared knowledge and dialogue among researchers, evaluators, and program developers?

The work on theories of change has been very important and has helped us get a much better idea about how to evaluate interventions. However, we researchers and evaluators don't fully appreciate how hard it is to implement a program. That's why researchers must spend time in programs and with staff. However, observation is easier to do in centers than in home-visiting programs. In general, the more researchers can work with program developers, the better off we will be. Interventions should be based on research and theory and then worked out with experienced practitioners.

1 See nccf.tc.columbia.edu for more information on the Center.
2 Brooks-Gunn, J., & Markman, L. (2005). The contribution of parenting to ethnic and racial gaps in school readiness. The Future of Children, 15(1); Collins, A. W., Maccoby, E. E., Steinberg, L., Hetherington, E. M., & Bornstein, M. H. (2000). Contemporary research on parenting: The case for nature and nurture. American Psychologist, 55(2).
3 Brooks-Gunn & Markman, 2005.
4 Brooks-Gunn, J., Berlin, L. J., & Fuligni, A. S. (2000). Early childhood intervention programs: What about the family? In J. P. Shonkoff & S. J. Meisel (Eds.), The handbook of early childhood intervention. New York: Cambridge University Press.
5 Brooks-Gunn & Markman, 2005.
6 Whitehurst, G. J., Epstein, J. N., Angell, A., Payne, A. C., Crone, D., & Fischel, J. E. (1994). Outcomes of an emergent literacy intervention in Head Start. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 541-556.
7 For a meta-analysis of home-visiting programs, see Sweet, M. A., & Appelbaum, M. I. (2004). Is home visiting an effective strategy? A meta-analytic review of home visiting programs for families with young children. Child Development, 75(5), 1435-1456.
8 Olds, D. L., Henderson, C. R., Kitzman, H. J., Eckenrode, J. J., Cole, R. E., & Tatelbaum, R. C. (1999). Prenatal and infancy home visitation by nurses: Recent findings. The Future of Children, 9(1), 44-65. www.futureofchildren.org/usr_doc/
vol9no1Art3.pdf (Acrobat file)
9 See www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/core/pubs_reports/ccdp/ccdp_intro.html for more information.
10 The Infant Health and Development Program is designed to reduce the developmental and health problems of low-birthweight premature infants. See also: Administration for Children and Families, Department of Health and Human Services. (2002). Making a difference in the lives of infants and toddlers and their families: The impacts of Early Head Start. Washington, DC: Author. www.mathematica-mpr.com/
publications/PDFs/ehsfinalvol1.pdf (Acrobat file); Brooks-Gunn, J., Duncan, G. J., & Maritato, N. (1997). "Poor families, poor outcomes": The well-being of children and youth. In G. J. Duncan & J. Brooks-Gunn (Eds.), Consequences of growing up poor. New York: Russell Sage; and Brooks-Gunn, J. (2003). Do you believe in magic?: What we can expect from early childhood intervention programs. Social Policy Report, 17(1). www.srcd.org/Documents/Publications/SPR/spr17-1.pdf (Acrobat file)
11 Brooks-Gunn, J., McCarton, C. M., Casey, P. H., McCormick, M. C., Bauer, C. R., Bernbaum, J. C., et al. (1994). Early intervention in low-birthweight premature infants: Results through age 5 years from the Infant Health and Development Program. Journal of the American Medical Association, 272(16).
12 For a variety of viewpoints from experts on this issue, see McCall, R. B., & Green, B. L. (2004). Beyond the methodological gold standards of behavioral research: Considerations for practice and policy. Social Policy Report, 18(2). Available at www.srcd.org/Documents/Publications/SPR/spr18-2.pdf (Acrobat file).

This article appeared in the Winter 2004/2005 edition of The Evaluation Exchange.

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