The ways in which parents engage with their children at age two predicts their children’s future academic outcomes, according to results from a 15 year study.

The study was conducted in 1996, by researchers from Utah State University’s department of Family, Consumer and Human Development (FCHD). In order to find out the extent of influence early parent-child engagement has on children’s future academic success, the team examined families participating in the “U.S. Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project.” Results from the study will be published in an upcoming special issue on fathers in the Family Science journal.

According to the researchers, parent-child activities demonstrated to have a positive impact on children’s future academic outcomes, include:

  • Elaborating on the words, actions, and pictures in a book or on unique attributes or objects
  • Relating book text or play activity to the child’s experience
  • Encouraging and engaging in pretend play
  • Presenting activities in an organized sequence of steps

Gina Cook, FCHD research assistant professor, explained:

“There has been extensive research done on the importance of early parent-child interactions on future educational experiences, but most have focused on the relationship with the mother.

Our study looked at the combined long-term impacts of both maternal and paternal interactions in those critical stages of early development, and discovered that children not only benefit from the interactions they have with their mothers, but also their fathers.”

In 229 low-income families, the researchers examined mother-toddler and father-toddler interactions at age two. These observations were then analyzed in relation to child outcomes at 3 years of age and in the 5th grade.

The team examined families with resident biological fathers, as well as those without. Results from the study showed that in both these family types, toddlers who were taught more during play with their mothers perform better academically. In addition to mother’s play, the child’s gender, and participation in the Early Head Start Program, resident biological fathers who teach during play with their toddlers also positively impact their child’s 5th grade reading and math performance.

According to the researchers, children’s brains were not stimulated more by biological fathers than fathers in other family situations. The study suggests that in homes with both biological parents, toddlers received higher levels of cognitive stimulation from the mother, while biological fathers contributed to later academic outcomes significantly more than mothers.

Cook said:

“Interestingly, when the biological father is living with the mother and child, mothers provide more cognitive stimulation to their toddlers, but it is the fathers in only these families who really add something more to their children’s early environments.

It is important for parents to engage with their children during the vital, early stages of brain development, because that early exposure to cognitive stimulation with both mothers and fathers can have a long-lasting and positive influence on the educational success of at-risk children.”

The FCHD department is part of the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services at Utah State University.

Written by Grace Rattue