Caleb’s head flopped to one side. St. Clair tapped the page loudly, then moved it left and right and up and down. The baby’s eyes, still cloudy and a little crossed, followed her movements.
“He’s looking at it!” she said. “See? He’s ready to learn!”
Home visits such as St. Clair’s are preschool in its earliest form. Through programs across the country, nurses, social workers or trained mentors offer support to new or expectant parents and impart skills to help them become better teachers for their children.
While Caleb is not learning to read yet, St. Clair said, he is developing his vision and a lifelong love of books.
The brain develops more in the first few years than at any other time in life, and studies have identified an achievement gap as early as nine months into a child’s life, separating those from rich households and those from poor households, which tend to be more stressful and less stimulating environments. By the time children are 2 or 3 years old, the gap is more pronounced in the size of their vocabularies, their social skills and their emotional abilities, such as to calm down and focus. All are key predictors of later school success.
President Obama’s plan for universal preschool calls for a major investment in home visiting programs, which advocates say can bridge that gap.
Home visiting programs have proliferated in the past few decades, with a few becoming national models. One 2012 study in New York found that children who participated in a home visiting program operated by Chicago-based Healthy Families America were less likely than a control group to repeat first grade and more likely to excel at skills such as following instructions and working well with others.
Other studies have shown a wide rage of social and health benefits, all of which are also related to later school performance, including fewer low-birth-weight babies, less isolation and depression for new moms, and fewer cases of child abuse and neglect. Many programs also help parents pursue additional education or better jobs.
The success of home visiting comes from its highly personal approach, said Deborah Daro, a researcher at the University of Chicago who has studied the programs.
“There is a real value in going into the home and seeing the context that a child is being raised in,” she said. Being there, it’s possible to see whether the baby has a safe place to sleep or whether there are any books in the house, she said.
Caleb’s mother, Antwonette Serguson, was referred to the Healthy Families home visiting program in Northern Virginia by her midwife when she was three months pregnant.
St. Clair started visiting the 21-year-old mother-to-be in her basement apartment in Manassas. She showed her pictures of how the baby develops in utero and encouraged her to eat more fresh fruit and less high-sodium instant noodles.