Positive Family-Child Interactions

From birth to age six, a child’s brain develops more than at any other time in lifeforming more than one million new neural connections every second. The brain develops through everyday experiences, including positive interactions with parents and caregivers. As a young child develops motor skills – such as crawling and walking, eating solid foods, and babbling – they are also building relationships, experiencing new emotions, and using their senses to understand the world around them. Over time, the brain connections built through these everyday experiences help a child move, speak, and think more complexly, developing higher-level abilities like motivation, self-regulation, problem-solving, and communication.

Adults in a child’s life have great influence – and responsibility – to help nurture their child’s physical and emotional growth. Research shows that positive interactions with caregivers who give attention, nurture, and appropriately respond to a child’s needs are critical for a child’s development, future health, and success. At the same time, when families face hardship or other significant challenges, such as family violence or housing instability, toxic stress may affect children’s brain development. The persistent absence of nurturing family-child interactions, such as reading books together, increases the likelihood of poor developmental outcomes. State leaders have a critical role in supporting policies that help equip families with effective parenting skills and overcome stressors that threaten stable, responsive relationships between children and their families.

Home Visiting Participation

Home visiting programs, which serve families on a voluntary basis, bring trained nurses, social workers, and child development specialists to the home, providing support and education to pregnant people and new families with children under age six. Home visiting programs aim to build parents’ capacities with a variety of strategies, such as offering support with breastfeeding and infant care, promoting early literacy in the home, teaching caregivers about age-appropriate activities, offering guidance on positive parenting techniques, encouraging healthy nutrition and physical activity, and providing guidance on budgeting and family finances.

State- and federally-funded evidence-based home visiting programs are effective at promoting maternal and child health, reducing child abuse and neglect, reducing infant deaths, promoting positive family-child interactions, and improving school readiness. Home visiting programs also effectively connect parents and their young children to resources that foster positive child development and meet families’ needs.

Despite the value of these programs, only 3.1 percent of Texas children under age three who are eligible for home visiting are served in evidence-based home visiting programs, which is less than half the national rate (7.7 percent).

Child Maltreatment

When children endure maltreatment such as abuse or neglect, the resulting trauma, disruption, and distress can harm their ability to thrive in the short-term and long-term, both in school and for the rest of their lives. There are many risk factors for child maltreatment, including untreated substance use by a caregiver, family domestic violence, and unaddressed mental health challenges. A robust network of support programs (including home visiting programs) coupled with a well-trained and appropriately resourced Child Protective Services workforce can prevent children from facing unsafe situations at home, separation from their families, and the challenges children often experience in the foster care system.

Unfortunately, a significant number of Texas children, 15.4 out of every 1,000 children under age six, experience maltreatment — a higher rate than the national average of 11.6 per 1,000 children. Although too many children from all backgrounds experience maltreatment, Black families are more likely to have an allegation of maltreatment substantiated than other families. The reasons for these disparities are difficult to disentangle, but research suggests that income, case workers’ assessment of risk, and race may all be contributing factors. The maltreatment rate among Texas children varies regionally as well, from 37.5 per 1,000 children in the North Texas region around Abilene (Department of Family Protective Services Region 2) to 9.5 per 1,000 children in the Houston area (DFPS Region 6). Additional research is needed to better understand the reasons for the regional differences. Potential factors include differences in demographics, access to resources, regional child protection policies, and more.

Daily Reading

The frequency of routine reading is a critical indicator of a healthy learning environment that includes stimulating, positive interactions between adults and children. Reading daily to young children, starting in infancy, helps them develop the building blocks for language and literacy, skills that are important for academic achievement and success in daily life.

According to data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, Texas ranks worst in the country in the percentage of children under age six whose families read to them daily. In Texas, well over half of White, Black, and Hispanic children are not read to daily, and the percentages are even higher for Black and Hispanic children. 

There are many reasons why parents may not read to their children daily, including long work hours, economic hardship, or limited educational opportunities themselves. However, interventions like parent coaching can help equip parents with the knowledge and skills they need to read to their children daily and build positive adult-child interactions.

Policy Recommendations

Policymakers can help children experience positive family-child interactions in the first five years of life. Strategies should include investing in evidence-based home visiting programs so they are available for all eligible children statewide, increasing access to mental health care for both parents and children as an effective way to reduce child maltreatment, and promoting initiatives proven to encourage early reading and positive family-child interactions. Learn more about the Dashboard’s policy recommendations to enhance family-child interactions here.