A Longitudinal Study on Fathers’ Parenting and Child Cognitive Development and Academic Achievement Across the Transition to School: NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development

The spring of 2008 was a pivotal time for me. It was the first time I would fly to Sweden and it was the time I graduated from Ohio State University‘s master’s program in Human Development and Family Science (of which now, apparently, you can only get a PhD in).

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Under the tutelage of Dr Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, then a young burgeoning Assistant Professor, I took on my master’s thesis using data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (NICHD SECCYD). I spent the whole fall of 2007 writing the introduction and methods sections and the spring writing the results and discussion section.

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I got to do exactly what I wanted–looking at father-child play in preschool and if those interactions (measured through sensitivity and stimulation) could predict later cognitive and academic achievement in first grade, above and beyond what the mother contributes. Below is the abstract. Click here to read my full Master’s Thesis.

Abstract:

This study examined associations between biological, co-resident father-child play at 54 months and child cognitive development and academic achievement at first grade for 699 father-child dyads who took part in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care. Fathers interacted with their child at 54 months in play oriented tasks and fathers’ sensitive and stimulating parenting were measured. Then, in first grade, children’s cognitive abilities and academic achievement were measured using the Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-educational Battery—Revised. Analyses using Structural Equation Modeling (SEM) revealed that fathers’ parenting during the play session at 54 months significantly predicted children’s cognitive development and there was a trend for predicting academic achievement at first grade. These results held true even after controlling for mothers’ parenting and parental education (which was used as a measure of SES). There were no moderating effects of child gender.

Right before the summer started in 2008, my advisor and I thought we should try to publish these findings. So I started trimming down the thesis to an acceptable level for publication.

I felt like this guy!
I felt like this guy!

As I did so, my advisor came upon an unfortunate (for me) publication. Unbeknownst to us, the NICHD team was also working on a similar paper, only they went further, looking at child outcomes in third grade.

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Dr. Jay Belsky, who I met in London in the summer of 2008, to tell him about how they had beaten me to publication

Belsky J, Booth la Force C, Bradley R, Brownell CA, Burchinal M, Campbell SB, et al. Mothers’ and fathers’ support for child autonomy and early school achievement. Developmental Psychology. 2008;44(4):895-907.

Abstract:

Data were analyzed from 641 children and their families in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development to test the hypotheses that in the early school years, mothers’ and fathers’ sensitive support for autonomy in observed parent– child interactions would each make unique predictions to children’s reading and math achievement at Grade 3 (controlling for demographic variables), children’s reading and math abilities at 54 months, and children’s level of effortful control at 54 months and that these associations would be mediated by the level of and changes over time in children’s observed self-reliance in the classroom from Grades 1 through 3. The authors found that mothers’ and fathers’ support for autonomy were significantly and uniquely associated with children’s Grade 3 reading and math achievement with the above controls, but only for boys. For boys, the effect of mothers’ support for child autonomy was mediated by higher self-reliance at Grade 1 and of fathers’ support for child autonomy by greater increases in self-reliance from Grades 1 through 3.

Apparently the NICHD team had been working on a very similar project with the national data and had beaten me to publication, rendering my analysis obsolete since it didn’t really add anything new–I also looked at cognition, but since cognition and academic achievement are correlated, my advisor and I deemed it not different enough to add anything new to the literature.

So I learned a lesson: when using national data, you have to be the first to publish, and therefore time is of the essence.

Having said that, I’m really glad I was able to use the NICHD SECCYD! I was able to learn how to get my hands on national data, how to run complex statistical analyses, and was able to focus on the issues that were important to me, namely control for maternal data–something that would have been much harder to do if I had worked with a smaller dataset.

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