Dr. Heather Taylor
Dr. Heather Taylor

Starting in September, researchers from the Children’s Learning Institute (CLI) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and TIRR Memorial Hermann started testing the effectiveness of a parenting program on early learning and motor development of infants with spina bifida and infants with tone and strength difficulties, including cerebral palsy.

The four-year research project is funded through a $2.65 million grant awarded to UTHealth from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The study investigates whether an integrated parent responsiveness and motor support intervention targeting these infants will result in changes in parent behavior that lead to greater improvements in the overall development of such core skills and competencies as attention, cognition, goal-directed play, language, and motor performance. Past research has shown a more responsive parenting style improves children’s development and learning, as do motor support strategies with motor development and learning, but rarely have the two been tested together.

Each year, about 1,400 babies are born with spina bifida in the United States, and about 10,000 will develop cerebral palsy.

“Children with physical disabilities face multiple challenges due to early physical and cognitive difficulties that impact their early learning and later academic performance and independence,” said principal investigator Dr. Heather Taylor, assistant professor at CLI and director for spinal cord injury research at TIRR Memorial Hermann. “Parents have the greatest potential for influencing their child’s development due to the number of opportunities they have to interact with him or her.”

The project will recruit 180 children who are between 12 and 18 months in age, adjusted for prematurity; located in Houston, McAllen, and the surrounding area; and diagnosed with spina bifida or have problems with tone and strength, such as cerebral palsy. As part of their recruitment efforts, researchers are seeking referrals from area physicians as well as collaborating with agencies such as Easter Seals.

Taylor said the study of infants for this project is necessary, since early intervention is critical for a child’s development. “We know from past research that we need to work with children early on,” she said. “It’s an important period when we believe they can best benefit from these strategies and lay a foundation for later learning and motor functioning.”

The research team will place project participants into one of three different intervention groups. One group will be exposed to the Play and Learning Strategies to Enable Children with Disabilities (PALS-Enable) program, while another will work with the Play and Learning Strategies (PALS) program. PALS is a nationally recognized program developed by CLI director Dr. Susan Landry, which promotes early learning through in-home coaching by trained experts who use weekly meetings, materials, and video feedback to improve parent-child interactions and stimulate early language, cognition, and social development.

Using PALS as the foundation, Taylor collaborated with project co-investigators Landry, Dr. Marcia Barnes, and Dr. Cathy Guttentag, and consulted with physical therapists and occupational therapists to develop PALS-Enable. PALS-Enable uses the same strategies as PALS, but also includes motor supportive strategies. These strategies are designed to improve the child’s positioning and movement to ease exploration of the environment.

“The project will be in addition to any therapy these children are currently undergoing,” Taylor said. “We are trying to determine if these strategies have a benefit beyond what they are already receiving.”

Taylor added there will be a third comparison group that, instead of receiving intervention strategies, will receive developmental information with weekly phone calls from coaches. Each group intervention will be delivered once a week for 14 weeks.

To refer a family for this study, email Taylor or call Cathy Caldwell at 713.500.3702.

—Andrew Heger, Children’s Learning Institute