University research associate Jessica Fanning is now known as the “Supernanny” of Eugene.

Fanning helped coach parents in an intervention program, and University researchers found that children whose parents received training improved their cognitive ability and other brain functions. The coached parents also reduced family stress within the home. The preliminary research, which was recently presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, is part of an ongoing study of brain development.

Reality television does not always accurately portray parent coaching, Fanning said.

“I think parents watch ‘Supernanny’ and see these routines and think they can do it,” Fanning said. “They try it out, but because they don’t understand the fundamental pieces that go with it, and because it’s for entertainment value, I don’t think they have success.”

TV shows and other resources conflict with one another and can confuse parents, Fanning said. A mother-in-law, for example, could tell a mother what not to do, or a fellow grocery shopper in the market could scold a parent.

“A lot of people say not to do this or that, but I really actively try not to come about it like that because parents are already getting that,” Fanning said. “If anything, I’d like parents to become critical consumers so they can analyze and evaluate a program.

Researchers at the University’s Brain Development Lab headed the study and asked parents whose children were enrolled at Head Start to participate. Parents were randomly assigned to either receive coaching, or their children were assigned to a control group. Parents of 14 preschool-aged children from low-income families attended two-hour coaching sessions for eight weeks. Parents took home techniques taught by coaches to try them at home.

Coaches, for example, taught parents how to praise children, according to a slideshow presented at the AAAS meeting. Coaches also showed parents how to use consistent discipline with clear expectations and consequences.

Meanwhile, all of the children’s brains were scanned, and parents answered survey questions after the classes. Researchers found that children whose parents received coaching showed improvements in memory and language-acquisition skills, or the ability to understand a language and follow directions. Parents were also able to reduce behavioral problems, according to the study.

“In this short time period, parents learn enough about themselves to become aware of their own behavior, and they become amazingly skilled with analyzing their own behaviors as they occur – their self-monitoring skills,” Fanning said.

Parents have a powerful role in their children’s development, research associate Courtney Stevens said.

What’s most compelling about this research is that we could work with the parents, and it seemed to have a trickle-down effect on the child,” Stevens said.

Stevens said she is interested in how parents influence children.

“We’re in a society that values the idea that anyone can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps and create their own destiny, yet we know there are a lot of barriers to do that,” Stevens said. “This research is finding out what some of the places are where we have the potential to create positive change in a child’s environment.

The research is also part of a bigger study involving brain research at the University.

Psychology professor Helen Neville, head of the Brain Development Lab, said the lab is finding out how brain development changes with experience.

For a long time, it was thought that the human brain was genetically determined and was organized or fixed at or before birth,” Neville said, adding current research is proving that early life experiences alter the brain’s organization. “By doing this kind of research, it gives us an idea about the factors that are relevant in human development.” (…)

Source: Oregon Daily Emerald, OR