WHILE IT IS IMPORTANT to look at external factors when assessing the impact economic disparities--such as stable housing, fair wages, and health care--can have on children's development, I especially am interested in the gaps in children's home learning environments.
Overall, the home learning gaps between richer and poorer families have slowed down in their divergence that was very characteristic of the past 25 years, but the bottom line is that they remain quite sizable. All parents are investing more in their children's development--lower- and higher-income families alike--so we still see a lot of inequalities in children's early opportunities. The corollary is that we then see big gaps in early skills development because the lower-income families simply cannot catch up.
Are there ways in which this gap can be mitigated for low-income families? Because we keep raising the bar for these families, we should capitalize on the fact that low-income parents have very high aspirations and do change their behavior in response to incentives. We need to figure out how to support them in ways that will allow them to do the same kinds of things that middle- and upper-class families do because they want to and, in many instances, they have the ability to.
The challenge is that the ground we need to cover is so much greater for this population, and the stakes so much higher. The longer it takes, the further behind these children will fall, and they could be playing catch-up for the rest of their lives.
While there are macro-level policies--like high-quality child care or paid leave--that ought to be in place so parents do not have to choose between working and taking care of their kids, we also need support at a more micro level. Research shows that the things helping promote children's development over the long run are small adjustments and small matters of habit that occur regularly--for instance, reading to children for 15 to 20 minutes every night. This activity alone has been shown to achieve incredible outcomes in cognitive and social development. What we need to do is complement any macro policies with support for families to succeed in making steady, modest investments in their children's early learning.
One approach I created with my colleagues is a program with a simple goal: promote book reading with low-income parents using digital tools designed to help manage better decisionmaking and mitigate against procrastination. Called...