In 2017, 20% of U.S. children lived in families with incomes below the federal poverty line, among which Black and Hispanic children represent the highest proportions (29% and 25%, respectively. Child Trends 2019). Already by 2 years of age, children growing up in poverty have worse language skills than their wealthier peers,2,3 with this gap growing over time (Fernald et al., 2013; Hoff, 2013). A strong predictor of the language gap is children?s early home environment, which has unique associations with children?s emerging language skills beyond a host of demographic characteristics (Reynolds et al., 2019; Rodriguez & Tamis-LeMonda, 2011). Through social interactions with their caregivers, children learn to communicate effectively and behave in culturally appropriate ways (Vygotsky, 1978). Specifically, social interactions that are sensitive to children?s verbal and nonverbal cues (aka ?serve and return?; Fisher et al., 2017) are beneficial for language development. Infants serve through eye gaze, gestures, object exploration, and vocalizations, and when parents return those serves in a way that is contiguous (close in time) and contingent (meaningful), they are more likely to foster infants? language skills (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2014). These types of social interactions are typically examined between children and mothers in white middle-class families. Despite their significance, however, we know almost nothing about ?serve and return? interactions among low-income families, and even less between fathers and children. This is especially important given that positively engaged low-income fathers have children with better language scores than their matched peers (Cabrera et al., 2007). Understanding the degree to which low-income fathers and mothers engage in ?serve and return? during infancy can inform interventions that augment protective factors already existing at home and reduce risk at school entry. To address these issues, we examine: (1) the heterogeneity of low-income fathers? and mothers? ?serve and return? interactions with their children at 9 and 18 months; (2) the contribution of parents? demographic and psychological factors to the frequency of their ?serve and return? input to children; (3) the associations between low-income fathers? and mothers? ?serve and return? interactions with their children at 9 and 18 months and children?s language skills at 24 and 30 months, controlling for important background factors and quantity of parental speech? We propose to develop a coding scheme to assess ?serve and return? interactions in a sample of 420 low-income fathers and mothers and their children at 9 and 18 months and will also transcribe all the parent-child videos. Data are drawn from the Baby Books 2 Project, which is a NICHD-funded longitudinal parenting intervention targeting first-time, low-income parents and includes an ethnically diverse sample of English- and Spanish- speaking parents. This research will support early intervention programs to identify specific mechanisms associated with long-term deficits in academic outcomes of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as hone interventions that result in more effective and sustained positive outcomes.

Public Health Relevance

This proposal examines the contiguity and contingency of father-child and mother-child communication (aka ?serve and return?) and its association with children?s emerging language skills in a sample of low-income ethnically diverse families.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Small Research Grants (R03)
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National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Initial Review Group (CHHD)
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Esposito, Layla E
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University of Maryland College Park
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Schools of Education
College Park
United States
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