Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children Hardcover – Jun 30 1995
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...alerts us to how much each person's future intellectual ability hinges upon his or her experience in the first year of life. -- Senator Thomas Daschle
Hart and Risley have condensed a large amount offunctional, practical, and very persuasive data... -- Asha
[This book] sheds fresh light on the still ongoing argument over the relative influences of nature and nurture... -- Child and Family Behavior Therapy
About the Author
Betty Hart, Ph.D., began her career in the early 1960s at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Washington, where she participated in the original demonstrations of the power of learning principles in influencing young children. With Montrose Wolf and Todd Risley, she introduced the basic procedures of adult attention and time-out now routinely taught and used in teaching and parenting. She also helped introduce the procedures for shaping speech and language widely used in special education. In 1965, she and Todd Risley began more than 35 years of collaborative work at the University of Kansas, when they established preschool intervention programs in poverty neighborhoods in Kansas City. Their study of what children actually do and say in day care and preschool and their publications on incidental teaching from the empirical base for contemporary child-centered teaching practices in preschool and special education. Dr. Hart is now Professor Emeritus of Human Development at The University of Kansas, and Senior Scientist at the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies at The University of Kansas. She has remained focused on the language development of preschool children.
Todd R. Risley, Ph.D., began his career in the early 1960s at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Washington, where he participated in the original demonstrations of the power of learning principles in influencing young children. With Montrose Wolf and Betty Hart, he introduced the basic procedures of adult attention and time-out now routinely taught and used in teaching and parenting. He also helped introduce the procedures for shaping speech and language widely used in special education. In 1965, Hart and Risley began more than 35 years of collaborative work at the University of Kansas, when they established preschool intervention programs in poverty neighborhoods in Kansas City. Their study of what children actually do and say in day care and preschool and their publications on incidental teaching from the empirical base for contemporary child-centered teaching practices in preschool and special education. Before his death in 2007, Dr. Risley was Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Alaska and Senior Scientist at the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies at The University of Kansas. He served on many national boards and commissions, as Editor of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, as President of the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy and of the behavioral division of the American Psychological Association, and as Alaska's Director of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities.
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Perhaps more than any other book, it undermines the nativist views of people like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. Nativists argue that cognitive development is largely an automatic process, the result of in-born brain mechanisms; experience makes little difference. What Hart & Risley found was that experience makes a profound difference. Children whose parents provide a rich linguistic environment are far more advanced linguistically and intellectually when they start school, and do far better in school, than children whose parents do not.
The study compares professional, working class and welfare families, so some may assume that the results merely reflect differences in genes: Poor kids don't do so well because the genes they inherit are just not as good. There's no denying that genes play a role in development, but what Hart & Risley found was that the quality and quantity of linguistic interactions, not income, was what predicted outcome. The children who did best were those who heard the most words, were given the most feedback, got the most positive feedback, and got the most complete answers to their questions.
One reviewer, a librarian, complains that the book's language is scholarly and jargony. It's true that this book does not read like a John Updike novel. It is, after all, the description and analysis of a scientific study. But as scholarly books go, this one is a breeze.
I believe most undergraduates majoring in psychology, early childhood development, and elementary education could read this book without difficulty and would find it interesting and useful. Many parents with a high school education would profit from the book. When this book first appeared I reviewed it in Psychology Today magazine and in Phi Delta Kappan. I should also have reviewed it on Amazon.com. I don't think I've reviewed any other book in three places, but this one deserves it. After all, it's a classic.
The authors constructed a longitudinal study where graduate students spent one hour with families every other week for four years. They observed the quantity and type of words spoken by parents to children from birth to four years of age.
They picked three groups of parents. The first set were professional families. These included professors from the University of Kansas as well as some lawyers and doctors. Then they picked another group of working class families. Finally they picked a group of families that were receiving government benefits ("welfare"). They decided to count the use of the spoken word by parents. Television words did not count. There were 42 families in each group. They cross-tested observers for observer neutrality. Here are a few of the findings:
1) A child in a professional family hears 48 million words by the age of four. A child in a welfare family hears 13 million.
2) A child in a professional family hears 6 positive encouragements for every negative prohibition. A child in a welfare family receives two prohibitions for every positive encouragement.
The impacts show that while socio-economic status was predictive, quantity of words and particularly the ratio of positive to negative were far more significant. The welfare children had an average iq of 75 and the professional children scored around 119. The working class families scored 99. The iqs were roughly the same when they revisited the children at age 19.
Their belief is that both sets of parents were trying to do right by their children. The professional parents were trying to help their kids develop analytical skills based on frequent questions and discussion of abstract ideas. They were trying to teach their children the skills that they thought were important to success in life. On the other hand, the welfare parents were teaching their kids the necessity of following orders, fitting in with group expectations, and exhibit respect for superiors. Given the characteristics of workplace expectations for workers at the top and the bottom of the job scale, both parent groups were trying to help their children cope with the worlds that they knew in their own lives.
The authors believe that this creates an ongoing cycle of economic inequality. Moreover, they think the distinctions are going to become more problematic as our society continues to discount manual labor while putting increasing weight on to the symbolic analysts.
The authors suggest that we need to spend a lot more money on early childhood intervention and on parent-coaching. To get a welfare child to hear as many words as a professional child, a caseworker would need to spend 61 hours per week in the home of a child.
Hart and Risley's book thoroughly investigates what is said in poverty, low SES, professional, and elite families over 10 years (both data compilation and analysis). Most interestingly is the nature of the TYPES of utterances said. The prevalence of directive (i.e. giving orders or chastizement over misbehaviors) dialogue increases as the SES of a family decreases. On the other hand, the prevalence of conversational (i.e. exploration, discussing about things, and problem solving dialogue) talk increases as the SES increases and decreases as SES decreases.
As an early childhood professional, I think it speaks volumes to experts in emergent literacy and parent education. Parents MUST talk to their children as intelligent adults would talk to them--not as babies or in a condescending way--if they are to promote optimal language, literacy, and communication proficiency for later life.
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