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Chuck Carney
IU School of Education
ccarney@indiana.edu
812-856-8027

Last modified: Monday, February 11, 2008

Good parenting can help difficult infants become outstanding students

National study follows hundreds of families

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Feb. 11, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The most challenging babies -- those who cry frequently, are very active and do not adapt well to new situations or people -- can perform as well or better than so-called "easy" babies if parents provide the right type of parenting, according to the results of a new study by education experts at Indiana University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Anne Dopkins Stright

Anne Dopkins Stright

Print-Quality Photo

"Everyone wants an easy baby, and it certainly does make life a lot easier," said Anne Dopkins Stright, a professor at the IU School of Education. "But having a difficult baby doesn't mean that the child will have trouble in first grade."

The study, published in the January/February 2008 issue of the journal Child Development, followed infants from more than 1,300 families in 10 geographic areas of the United States beginning at birth through first grade. Co-authors include Ken Kelley, professor at IU School of Education, and Kate Gallagher, professor at UNC.

The researchers found that first graders who were difficult as infants and whose mothers provided excellent parenting had as good or better grades, social skills and relationships with teachers and peers as first graders who were less difficult as infants and also had excellent parenting from their mothers. Mothers described the temperament of their children in a questionnaire when the child was six months old. Researchers observed mothers' parenting, with particular attention to mothers' warmth and age-appropriate control, six times between infancy and first grade. First grade teachers filled out questionnaires about the child's adjustment to school, social skills and relationships with teachers and peers.

"I expected like everybody else that the children who would be the 'stars' of first grade would be easy babies who had good parenting," Stright said.

While it seems intuitive that difficult babies start with a disadvantage for academic success, Stright said the study indicates whatever disadvantage there may be can be overcome.

"The sensitivity that makes these babies so difficult also may make them much more responsive to the good parenting," she said. Conversely, Stright said poor parenting may be more harmful to difficult babies. "The children who did the worst in first grade were the difficult babies who had poor parenting," she said.

The study findings might be a boost to parents struggling through the early years.

"These infants may exhaust and frustrate their parents, but with high-quality parenting, these infants may become the most academically competent and socially skilled students in the first grade, compared to infants who are easier to parent," Stright said.

It also suggests a different approach to early intervention.

"Early identification of difficult temperament during infancy may help to more effectively plan and implement interventions," she said. "For example, physicians can identify parents who perceive their children as temperamentally difficult in infancy and refer these parents for supportive services."

The journal Child Development is a publication of the Society for Research in Child Development, based in Washington, DC. The participating families in the study were taking part in the Study of Early Child Care by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which funded the data collection.

Media Outlets: the following comments are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Web site at http://site.educ.indiana.edu/news/tabid/5663/Default.aspx. Look for the story headline under "Podcasts."

Stright says it's common for parents of difficult children to assume that their struggles with their kids will last a lifetime and affect school performance:

"The study results suggest that that's not true, that if the parent really works and stays with the child and is warm and loving, provides good discipline, control, that these kids can do just as well or even better than these easy babies that everyone wishes they had."

The results were unexpected, Stright says, because she anticipated that the difficult babies would still struggle even with good parenting:

"I was very surprised at that, because you would expect -- they both have good parenting, but the difficult babies are starting out at a disadvantage because they seem to have such a sensitive nervous system and everything upsets them and you would think this would cause problems."

One of the things to take away from the study, Stright says, is that parents should be encouraged:

"Letting parents know that they shouldn't give up on these difficult babies is probably the most important implication of the study's findings."

For more information, contact Chuck Carney at 812-856-8027 or ccarney@indiana.edu.