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UTEP to Study Effect of Parental Engagement on Child Development

Last Updated on January 03, 2022 at 12:00 AM

Originally published January 03, 2022

By Daniel Perez

UTEP Marketing and Communications

A faculty researcher from The University of Texas at El Paso will lead an inter-institutional study with Princeton University that will focus on families with young children to learn how life circumstances affect how parents interact with their offspring.

UTEP's Christine Potter, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, will lead an inter-institutional study into the effects on a young child's development when parents spend quality time with them despite life's challenges. Photo: Laura Trejo / UTEP Marketing and Communications
UTEP's Christine Potter, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, will lead an inter-institutional study into the effects on a young child's development when parents spend quality time with them despite life's challenges. Photo: Laura Trejo / UTEP Marketing and Communications

Christine Potter, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, is the principal investigator behind “Effects of Financial Concerns on Low-Income Parents’ Speech to Children.” The James S. McDonnell Foundation awarded $250,000 to Potter for the two-year project that launched in December 2021.

Potter, whose research specialty is how people learn language, said that many previous studies have documented how differences in children’s early experiences with language affected their development, but few scholars have tried to study the reasons behind those differences.

She said developmental scientists have found persistent achievement gaps between children from more affluent backgrounds and children whose families may not have the same means, but more recent studies have shown that a bigger factor in a child’s development could be parental engagement. 

“Recent research suggests that the amount (of time) that parents engage with and talk to their children is a better predictor of their language and academic skills than family income,” Potter said. “We think that better understanding the ways that parents may be more or less available to their children, perhaps because of other things happening in their lives, can help us think about ways to ensure that all children have more opportunity to succeed.”

Potter’s team includes UTEP undergraduate students and recent graduates, as well as colleagues from Princeton University in New Jersey. She said her group would use the first few months to plan, prepare equipment and materials, and connect with community organizations that serve families in El Paso and Trenton, New Jersey. She said the team wants to involve a wide range of families that speak English and/or Spanish at home and have children who are around 18 months old. They are interested particularly in working with lower-income families.

The team is developing a survey that asks parents about the challenges in their lives, and the things that support or interfere with their ability to spend quality time with their children.

“We’re hoping that by better understanding the challenges parents face, we might eventually be able to alleviate some of those burdens, and that could help children from a variety of backgrounds have a greater opportunity to succeed,” Potter said.

Members of the research team also will observe families in their homes. The researchers plan to investigate how daily, “real-life” challenges of time, health and money affect how parents interact with their children. Part of the study will involve attaching a small digital recorder to a participating child’s T-shirt at different times of the month over the course of a year to see how children’s experiences may change over time. Potter expects to have preliminary results in early 2024.

The researchers will use that information to develop policies and interventions that could reduce the effects of various social, personal and economic disparities.

Jessica Valencia, a senior rehabilitation sciences major, is one of Potter’s research assistants. She has focused on the survey portion of the project, and said the experience to see how others conduct collaborative research has been rewarding and fun.

Valencia, an El Paso native and first-generation college student, said she is interested in working with pediatric patients, so her participation will expand her knowledge about children’s speech and development.

“These are all useful skills and experiences that will help me academically and professionally,” said Valencia, whose degree will come with a concentration in occupational therapy and a minor in psychology.

Potter said an unusual aspect of this investigation is that the team will work with families in two “very different” communities. She said that should provide researchers with more diverse data that they could use to develop different types of support in different settings.

Her team will work out of her Children’s Learning Project lab in the Psychology Building. Her Princeton co-PIs are Casey Lew-Williams, Ph.D., professor of psychology, and Eldar Shafir, Ph.D., professor of behavioral science and public policy. The Princeton team members will work with the Trenton families.

Lew-Williams, director of the Princeton Baby Lab, said that researchers must learn more about how everyday constraints shape the lives of lower-income families, and Potter’s project could push the field forward. He said the use of surveys, experiments and in-home recordings would help researchers to understand better the forces that shape parent-child interactions.

“Society is in need of evidence-based approaches to alleviate the burdens of poverty, and developmental science can help,” said Lew-Williams, who has collaborated with Potter since 2016. “Dr. Potter’s project contributes to this effort in a way that’s grounded, respectful and inspiring.”

The James S. McDonnell Foundation, based in St. Louis, is a private philanthropic institution established in 1950 by the aerospace pioneer to improve the quality of life through the support of new knowledge and knowledge-based solutions to society’s important issues.