Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas’ Callier Center for Communication Disorders and Center for Children and Families (CCF) have joined with colleagues from across the country to investigate how father-child interactions influence language development and literacy achievement in low-income ethnic-minority communities.

Led by the University of Georgia, the group of six institutions will use a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to understand better how fathers influence their children’s development. Other universities participating in the work include the University of California, Irvine; Georgia State University; New York University and the University of Washington.

The study will use data from the Dallas Project On Education Pathways (DPrEP), in which researchers have studied the development of self-regulation, school achievement and behavioral adjustment in low-income African American and Hispanic children in the Dallas area since 2009. Early father-child interactions will be reexamined and compared with interactions these same children had with their mothers that were documented during the DPrEP studies, which were also supported by the NICHD.

“The majority of early developmental work looking at parent-child behavioral interactions is focused on children and mothers. While there’s work on fathers and children, we have much to learn about the formative importance of these relationships,” said Dr. Raúl Rojas, associate professor of speech, language, and hearing in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and principal investigator for the UT Dallas section of the new grant.

‘Rare’ Project

The DPrEP data set, which includes observational measures of father-child and mother-child relationships and ethnic-racial socialization practices in the home, provides a focus on families that are demographically differentiated from most previous studies in several ways.

“These two populations come from Dallas households experiencing low income. One set of father-child groups is African American, and the other is Hispanic, primarily Spanish-speaking,” said Rojas, the director of the Bilingual Language Laboratory at the Callier Center.

“Adding in the fact that this project leverages longitudinal data — this is very rare.”

Under the joint leadership of Dr. Margaret Tresch Owen, Robinson Family Professor and CCF director, and Dr. Margaret O’Brien Caughy, Owen’s primary collaborator at the University of Georgia, DPrEP investigators have been following the progress of 407 children from age 2½ to middle school for a decade, studying features of the home environment and schools that can help account for both success and disparities in children’s school achievement and behavioral adjustment.

“Over the past 10 years, our longitudinal study of these children and developmental contexts of their lives has yielded numerous publications on the development of African American and Hispanic children from the Dallas area, contributing to a needed expansion of the research literature,” Owen said.

Having longitudinal observations across this wide a period allows researchers to examine the effects of these interactions, beginning at a crucial developmental period from 2½ to 3½ years old, Owen explained. The researchers will leverage the work of the earlier phase of the study, which includes video recordings of 216 2½- to 3½-year-old children interacting with their fathers and their mothers.

“We see a lot of variability with the language learning of children in general developmental data, and this is a really important window of time to investigate how developmental differences may occur with language and joint engagement, which is when the child and adult focus on the same object or activity and converse together through words, gestures and shared expressions,” Rojas said.

“Over the past 10 years, our longitudinal study of these children and developmental contexts of their lives has yielded numerous publications on the development of African American and Hispanic children from the Dallas area, contributing to a needed expansion of the research literature.”

Dr. Margaret Tresch Owen, Robinson Family Professor and director of the Center for Children and Families at UT Dallas

The new project will also expand on previous analysis of ethnicity-specific patterns, he said. Scientists from the four institutions beyond UT Dallas and the University of Georgia will contribute their expertise on children’s language development and family relationships within specific demographic contexts.

”DPrEP was designed with the goal of expanding our understanding of the cultural contexts of children’s development from a framework that addresses cultural adaptations and practices that may serve as sources of resilience leading to healthy development in a cohort of children who face many differing risks,” Owen said. “Our focus on the fathers and fathering experiences of the children in the study adds important contributions to our growing knowledge in this area.”

Finding Patterns

Rojas explained that the fatherhood project has goals that are both descriptive and predictive in nature.

“We’re trying to identify culturally specific patterns in terms of early language input and joint engagement behavior,” he said. “We expect that these early patterns of language interaction and joint engagement will relate to literacy achievement when the children are in first grade.”

The researchers also want to look at how these aspects may differ between male and female children.

“Prior studies have shown clear differences in language development between boys and girls by age 3,” Rojas said. “Girls meet their milestones earlier; they produce longer utterances earlier, and boys eventually catch up. We don’t know how much that matters going forward when these specific populations reach school age, and it may differ between monolingual and bilingual children from DPrEP.”

“We’re trying to identify culturally specific patterns in terms of early language input and joint engagement behavior. We expect that these early patterns of language interaction and joint engagement will relate to literacy achievement when the children are in first grade.”

Dr. Raúl Rojas, associate professor of speech, language, and hearing in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

How the researchers gather the information for the new study also distinguishes it from previous work, Rojas explained.

“Earlier data has sometimes been obtained via questionnaires, rather than observing actual parent-child interactions as we have,” he said. “They haven’t used the same volume of video interaction or the longevity of study that we have with DPrEP. And questionnaire-based work, or standardized testing, is functionally different from actually watching how children interact with their parents.”

Identifying data-driven patterns — not proving or disproving stereotypes — is the focus of this project, Rojas said.

“We are trying to provide empirical evidence for what may be occurring in these families, what they are demonstrating over time. What’s driving this work are the actual empirical questions we have about interactions in these populations on which so little work has been done. Once we complete this project, we’re going to have a lot to share. Some of it may align with the majority population; some of it may be very unique.”