Follow the child’s learning lead


Dr Kirsten Asmussen, Head of What Works – Child Development, Early Intervention Foundation

Children are learning already before birth. By 17 weeks gestation, the foetus will have learned how to co-ordinate simple motor movements on the basis of the neurological feedback received from gravity and pressure from the uterine wall. By 29 weeks, the unborn child will be able to discriminate differences in language sounds through listening to the tones coming from the mother’s voice.

After the baby is born, learning continues at a rapid pace throughout the first two years. By six months, most babies can recognise their own names. By 12 months, most toddlers can say between three and eight words. By two years, most pre-schoolers know around 300 words.

What the child learns during the first two years of life, then lays the foundation for all future learning.

As we describe in our report, Key competencies in early cognitive development, children’s early learning benefits tremendously when it is actively encouraged by their parents and other caregivers. Caregiver behaviours that particularly support children’s early learning include:

  • Infant-directed speech, involving the exaggeration of the vowels and consonants used in the family’s native language. Infant-directed speech not only supports infants’ understanding of language, but also their awareness of the caregiver as someone who is responsive to their needs.
  • Joint attention, also referred to as triadic play, whereby the caregiver and infant jointly share their attention towards a toy or other household objects. Through this play, children develop small and gross motor skills, learn about how objects work and come to appreciate that knowledge about objects can be communicated.
  • Conversations about the objects, feelings and events that are important to the child. During these conversations, children gain important knowledge about the world, practice their native language and learn how to express their feelings and thoughts in a way that others can understand.

Studies show that the quality of these parenting behaviours is directly associated with children’s vocabulary at age two and problem-solving capabilities at age three. These capabilities, in turn, predict children’s success in school and potentially their entry into the workforce. While these findings do not mean that children who are behind at age three cannot catch up (because they can, and they do), they do underscore the advantages certain caregiving behaviours provide.

Most parents engage in these behaviours spontaneously and naturally. However, there is good evidence showing that these caregiving behaviours have their greatest impact when they are child-led, meaning that they occur in response to the child’s specific interests, needs and developmental capabilities. By comparison, children under the age of two learn relatively little from activities that are explicitly parent-led.

The Family Nurse Partnership programme includes content which explicitly helps parents follow their child’s lead and there is consistent evidence across studies that this content is effective. This evidence includes:

  • Findings from the US and Holland linking FNP to improvements in the quality of the home learning environment.
  • Findings from the US linking FNP to increases in infant responsiveness during the child’s first year.
  • Findings from the US and UK associating FNP to improvements in two-year-old’s cognitive and language capabilities.
  • Findings from the US that verify link between FNP and improved language skills at age 4 and higher scores in reading and maths at age 6.

FNP does this by helping mothers understand their child’s learning capabilities at each stage of their early development and providing them with strategies that encourage their child to direct their own learning. One-to-one coaching from the family nurses also increases mothers’ confidence in knowing when and how to do this, as well as their perceived self-efficacy in supporting their child’s learning.