Six-month-old Mackinzie is on her stomach. She hasn’t started crawling yet. Infant educator Alex DaSilva leans in and bends Mackinzie’s legs so she’s balanced on all fours. DaSilva places a purse a few inches in front of Mackinzie and pats it.
Mackinzie thrusts forward whimpering. Then she stops.
“It’s okay. Don’t give up. Don’t give up,” DaSilva says.
DaSilva makes a living coaching mothers and their new babies. Tummy time has been a part of her routine since she started this work four years ago. It helps build babies’ muscles. But now DaSilva is expected to help moms build their babies’ brains, too.
DaSilva now trains moms to count with their babies and read to them.
It’s all part of a strategy developed three years ago by Harvard Economist Ron Ferguson. He studies the achievement gaps that develop in schools between poor and middle-class kids, and between white children and their black and Latino classmates. He realized that the gap starts as early as 2 years old and looked for a way to intervene.
“There are lots of early childhood experiences that kids from some backgrounds tend to have in spades and the kids from other backgrounds don't have,” Ferguson said. “It's not part of the way their family tend to parent. Parents didn't really know that it made that much difference.”
Ferguson boiled down the guidance into what he calls the Boston Basics.
The lessons are based in scientific research, and most are not controversial: read and discuss stories, point, and narrate the world around you. But a couple of the recommendations go against some long-held beliefs.
The first myth Ferguson wants to dispel is that you shouldn’t hold a young baby too much because you might spoil her. Research shows that babies need to feel emotionally secure. It’s important for developing mental control and self-regulation, so-called “executive functioning.”
“People have been thrilled that they can hold their babies now,” Ferguson said. "There was a young man who's a high school principal at English High. He was in one of my audiences once. Everybody in his family had been saying, ‘Don't be picking that baby up. Let him lay there, let him cry, he'll get over it.’ And now he was so happy he could go home and with authority tell them, ‘It’s okay for me to go over and pick him up and hold him.’”
The second myth Ferguson wants to break is about little boys.
“People are denying affection to toddler boys for fear of undermining their sexuality, their masculinity. ‘You know, you pick him up and you’re hugging him too much, he's going to be soft. He may even be gay’ is the kind of conversations you hear,” he said.
Ferguson thinks this practice could explain studies showing that two-year-old boys of all backgrounds lag behind their girl peers when it comes to cognitive ability.
The goal is for pediatricians, preachers and barbers to lecture on the basics. He’s enlisted partners, including the city of Boston, Boston Medical Center and WGBH.
The campaign is starting by targeting Mattapan and East Boston, neighborhoods with high levels of poverty. The hope is that five years from now, kindergarteners will show up more prepared for school.
“It’s important, it’s useful. We should definitely be doing that,” Stanford University education professor Sean Reardon said. “But we shouldn’t think that alone will be sufficient to create equal opportunity for kids.”
Reardon said structural inequalities also need to be addressed, including the amount of free time more prosperous parents have to spend with their kids and low-income families' limited access to good preschools.
Ferguson agreed that more needs to be done, but he said that shouldn’t be an excuse to sit back and withhold information from parents who might use it.
“You tell a parent something they didn't know before and they can do it tonight sometimes if they want to,” Ferguson says.
Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.