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Rebecca Ryan, Christy Brady-Smith, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn describe the use of videotapes in the national evaluation of Early Head Start.

Early Head Start (EHS) is a comprehensive child development program that serves low-income pregnant women, and families with children up to age 3. One of the ways EHS promotes healthy development among infants and toddlers is by encouraging close, supportive relationships between parents and children. To assess the program's impact on these relationships, over 2,000 mothers and children engaging in a series of teaching and play tasks were videotaped as part of the EHS Research and Evaluation Project, a randomized evaluation of some of the nation's first federally funded EHS programs. The interactions were then coded for key parent and child behaviors, such as parent sensitivity, cognitive stimulation, and child engagement.

In 8 of the 17 participating EHS research sites, study children were also videotaped interacting with their fathers and father figures, as part of the EHS Fathers Study, a substudy of the larger EHS evaluation. The EHS Fathers Study is part of a federal research initiative to incorporate fathers in national studies on families and children. EHS' study is the only one in the initiative gathering videotape data on father-child interactions and on the parenting behavior of low-income men, a group traditionally excluded from large-scale research projects. Unlike survey measures or other observational instruments, videotapes enable us to examine the nature and quality of father-child interactions rather than just the frequency of father involvement.

The videotaped activities were administered during in-home interviews conducted when children were approximately 14, 24, and 36 months old, for mothers, and 24 and 36 months old, for fathers. Both mother-child and father-child dyads were given a series of semi-structured tasks to complete. The tasks and the coding scales¹ were adapted from free play activities used in two other studies: the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care, a national study, and the Newark Observational Study of the Teenage Parent Demonstration program, a study of low-income African American families.

Related Resources

Berlin, L. J., Brady-Smith, C., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2002). Links between childbearing age and observed maternal behaviors with 14-month-olds in the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project. Infant Mental Health Journal, 23, 104–129.

Cabrera, N., Brooks-Gunn, J., Moore, K., West, J., Boller, K., & Tamis-LeMonda, C. S. (2002). Bridging research and policy: Including fathers of young children in national studies. In C. S. Tamis-LeMonda & N. Cabrera (Eds.), Handbook of father involvement (pp. 489–523). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Shannon, J. D., Cabrera, N., & Lamb, M. (in press). Fathers and mothers at play with their 2- and 3-year-olds: Relations to children's language and cognitive development. Child Development.

The videotape data have revealed favorable program impacts² on increasing maternal supportiveness and decreasing maternal detachment. EHS Research Consortium members have also used the data to analyze the effects of maternal parenting on child development with a focus on at-risk populations, such as teenage mothers, depressed mothers, and mothers from different ethnic and immigrant groups. Papers using the father videotape data have examined the impact of father parenting on child cognitive development independent of mother parenting; the interplay between father and child behaviors over time; and the joint impact of mother and father parenting on child cognitive development. In the future, the father videotapes will be used to examine more theoretical questions about the nature of fatherhood, such as how maternal and paternal parenting differ and whether maternal and paternal behaviors carry different meanings for children and for their development.

All three waves of the videotaped data from the EHS study, as well as the prekindergarten follow-up, will be available for restricted public use at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study's Murray Research Center. By making these unique data available to the public, the Administration for Children and Families and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (which have jointly funded the father studies), together with the EHS Research Consortium, aim to foster continued research in the areas of mothering, fathering, and early childhood development in low-income and diverse populations.

¹ The coding scales, developed by a multiethnic team at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University, measure dimensions of parenting, such as sensitivity and cognitive stimulation, on a scale from 1 (low incidence of the behavior) to 7 (high incidence of the behavior), on the basis of the frequency and quality of observed behaviors indicative of the dimension in question.
² Administration for Children and Families, Department of Health and Human Services. (2002). Making a difference in the lives of infants and toddlers and their families: The impacts of Early Head Start, volume I: Final technical report. Washington, DC: Author. (Acrobat file)

Rebecca M. Ryan
Graduate Research Fellow

Christy Brady-Smith
Senior Research Scientist

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn
Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child Development and Education

National Center for Children and Families
Teachers College
Columbia University
525 West 120th Street, Box 39
New York, NY 10027

Tel: 212-678-3374

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