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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  To access the full research publication summarized in this digest, please see footnote #1 below. For help citing this article, click here.

Introduction 1

Latinos are the fastest-growing ethnic minority group in the United States, especially among families living in poverty and children under 5 years of age. The number of Latino children under 5 is expected to increase 146% between 2005 and 2050 (Day, 1996).2 Currently, Latino children already represent 21.4% of the early childhood population—an amount larger than all minority groups of that age combined.3

Relative to the size of this population, there exists little research considering Latino infant and child development. To better understand the various factors influencing Latino infant development, it is important to explore the contributions of parenting behaviors to young children's development within the broader context of demographics, community characteristics, and other factors.

This research brief describes the findings from a recent study examining parenting behaviors and children's developmental outcomes. The study provides a deeper understanding of how cultural practices combine with other factors to shape parenting behaviors among families in the United States in the first year of children's lives. Several findings provide information about ways in which practitioners and Latino families can more effectively engage with young Latino children to influence their cognitive, social, language, and literacy development—and therefore facilitate their school readiness.

The Study

The ongoing study examined the characteristics and early predictors of infant development and parenting, utilizing a large, nationally representative sample of 9-month-old infants and their families from the Department of Education's Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey—Birth Cohort (ECLS–B). The 10,688 children included in the study were selected from birth records of children born in the United States in 2001 and are being followed from birth through kindergarten entry.

Key Findings

Family engagement matters for all children in the early years regardless of social, cultural, or ethnic group. Children's cognitive and motor development skills in the first year of life are associated with parents' reports of the frequency of their language and literacy activities with their children, as well as with observations of parents' responsiveness to their children's emotional cues. In other words, children whose parents read and talk with them more and are emotionally responsive have more developed cognitive and motor competencies. These two types of parenting behaviors—frequency of language and literacy engagement and parental emotional responsiveness—are important parenting behaviors that influence development for all children, across cultural, social, and ethnic groups

There are no differences in cognitive and motor competencies between Latino children and their White peers at 9 months of age, when pre-existing differences in socio-economic status (e.g., family income, parental education, etc.) are taken into consideration. This is an important finding because we know from other studies that, as early as kindergarten, differences have been found between Latino children and White children in terms of school readiness measures. For example, at the beginning of kindergarten, 75% of White children recognize letters, while only 50% of Latino children have learned this skill.4 We were curious to explore what parenting behaviors in early childhood would contribute to the positive development of the cognitive and motor skills crucial for school readiness.

Few differences in parenting behaviors exist across ethnic groups; however, Latino families are less likely to read books and share stories with their children than parents from other ethnic backgrounds. This is a significant finding, given that book reading and storytelling are considered measures of language and literacy engagement—two important behaviors related to children's developmental outcomes in the study. The lower rate of book reading by Latino parents with their young children has been found in several previous studies.5 Researchers and practitioners have subsequently suggested that Latino parents may engage in other, perhaps more culturally relevant, forms of talk with their young children, such as storytelling.6 However, this study of infants now joins another related study indicating that Latino families engage in fewer storytelling activities with their young children.7

Lessons Learned and General Implications

The findings from our study suggest the need to target and increase the frequency of book reading and storytelling, as well as other related language and literacy activities, in Latino families in order to keep Latino children developmentally on par with their White peers after 9 months of age. These efforts should use culturally and linguistically responsive approaches, particularly for the large number of Latino families who are Spanish-speaking or bilingual. These approaches include the following:

  • Support Latino parents' knowledge about bilingual language development and broaden their perspectives related to parenting roles and expectations. Spanish-speaking parents are eager to better understand language and literacy development, particularly the bilingual and biliteracy development that they and their children are experiencing.8 However, parents frequently receive confusing or unclear messages from other family members, professionals, and the media regarding language development across bilingual environments. Furthermore, many Latino immigrants may perceive the parenting role as one that primarily supports nurturance, health, and protection of young children, and one that facilitates learning activities rather than directly engages in them.9 Thus, addressing Latino parents' basic knowledge about bilingual language development and the varying parenting perspectives that exist in the U.S. may be an important aspect of targeting language and literacy involvement in the home.

  • Support the use of language and literacy activities in the home, regardless of whether family members speak in English or Spanish. Various studies have demonstrated that development in a child's first language (often the home language) is important for later English abilities, total language, and literacy abilities, as well as for social and emotional development. This has been shown in both the classroom and the home environments.10 Our study of ECLS–B suggested that the extent of English and/or Spanish use in the home did not relate to child development; rather, the amount of talking and book reading by parents mattered—regardless of the language spoken. Thus, providers can help Latino parents understand that speaking and/or reading with their young children in Spanish or any other language will help improve their children's overall development, including their English learning.

  • Provide parents books to use in the home and model their use. Pediatric studies have demonstrated that discussing, modeling, and providing books within primary health care settings can increase family literacy activities and development for infants and toddlers from a variety of language backgrounds, including Latinos.11 As such, providing materials that can facilitate language development within Latino families is another important consideration. Such materials should be carefully crafted to the language and literacy skills of the local community of Latino parents.


Together, these findings suggest that efforts targeting the practice of language and literacy activities in Latino homes should incorporate bilingual book provision and modeling, parental understanding of language development, and cultural and developmental perspectives regarding parenting roles and expectations within the Latino community. The more that providers can emphasize the tremendous value that everyday language and literacy activities can play in supporting their children's development, the more likely Latino parents' strong aspirations for their children's academic success will result in more active engagement in language and literacy activities at home.

1 Summarized from López, M. L., Barrueco, S., & Miles, J. (2006). Latino infants and their families: A national perspective of protective and risk developmental factors. Report submitted to National Task Force on Early Childhood Education for Hispanics and the Foundation for Child Development.
2 Day, J. C. (1996). Population projections of the United States by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin: 1995 to 2050. Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P25-1130, U.S. Government Printing Office.
3 U.S. Census Bureau (2004). Table 4: Annual estimates of the population by sex and age for the United States: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2003. (NC-EST2003-04-3, 5, 7, 12 & 13).
4 West, J., Denton, K., & Germino-Hausken, E. (2000). America's kindergartners: Findings from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998–99: Fall 1998 (NCES 2000-070, revised). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
5 For example, see Flores, G., Tomany-Korman, S. C., & Olson, L. (2005). Does disadvantage start at home? Racial and ethnic disparities in health-related early childhood home routines and safety practices. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 159(2), 158–165; Raikes, H., Alexander Pan, B., Luze, G., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Brooks-Gunn, J., Constantine, J., et al. (2006). Mother–child bookreading in low-income families: Correlates and outcomes during the first three years of life. Child Development, 77(4), 924–953.
6 For example, see Raikes, Alexander Pan, Luze, Tamis-LeMonda, Brooks-Gunn, Constantine, et al., 2006; Riojas-Cortez, M., Flores, B. B., Smith, H. L., & Clark, E. R. (2003). Cuentame un cuento [Tell me a story]: Bridging family literacy traditions with school literacy. Language Arts, 81(1), 62–71.
7 Nord, C. W., Lennon, J., Liu, B., & Chadler, K. (1999). Home literacy activities and signs of children's emerging literacy, 1993 and 1999. Statistics In Brief. NCES Publication No. 2000-026rev. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
8 For example, see Lee, S. L.(1999). The linguistic minority parent's perceptions of bilingual education. Bilingual Research Journal, 23(2&3).
9 Halgunseth, L. C., Ispa, J. M., & Rudy, D. (2006). Parental control in Latino families: An integrated review of the literature. Child Development, 77(5), 1282–1297.
10 For example, see National Task Force for Hispanic Early Education. (2007). Para nuestros niños. Phoenix: Arizona State University; Ezell, H. K., Gonzales, M. D., & Randolph, E. (2000). Emergent literacy skills of migrant Mexican American preschoolers. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 21(3), 147–153.
11 For example, see Golova, N., Alario, A. J., Vivier, P. M., Rodriguez, M., & High, P. C. (1999). Literacy promotion for Hispanic families in a primary care setting: A randomized, controlled trial. Pediatrics, 103, 993–997; Mendelson, A. L., Mogilner, L. N., Dreyer, B. P., Forman, J. A., Weinstein, S. C., Broderick, M., et al. (2001). The impact of a clinic-based literacy intervention on language development in inner-city preschool children. Pediatrics, 107, 130–134; Silverstein, M., Iverson, L., & Lozano, P. (2002). An English-language clinic-based literacy program is effective for a multilingual population. Pediatrics, 109, 1–6.

Michel L. López, Ph.D.
National Center for Latino Child & Family Research
22610 Woodfield Road
Laytonsville, MD 20882

Sandra Barrueco, Ph.D.
The Catholic University of America
327 O'Boyle Hall
Washington, DC 20064

Erika Feinauer, Ed.D.
SRCD Policy Fellow
National Science Foundation
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences
4201 S. Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA 22203

Jonathan C. Miles, Ph.D.
Searchlight Consulting
2121 Jamieson Ave, #1702,
Alexandria, VA 22314

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