Sense and Sensitivity: Research indicates best ways to boost parental sensitivity to child behavior

Practitioners can support parents’ interactions with their children by helping them be aware of, interpret, and respond to child behaviors. Head Start staff working with families will find research-based strategies for increasing parents’ skills in interacting with their children.

The following article is provided courtesy of the Research and Training Center on Early Childhood Development.

Sense and Sensitivity: Research indicates best ways to boost parental sensitivity to child behavior

What are the characteristics of interventions that help increase parents’ sensitivity to their children’s behavior?

Research tells us:
One of the best ways for practitioners to support and strengthen parental sensitivity to child behavior is to offer a short series of highly focused interventions that emphasize (1) awareness and attention to child behavior, (2) correct interpretation of the meaning of behaviors, and (3) timely and appropriate responses to behaviors. Video tapes of these types of behaviors are effective tools for use in supporting parental sensitivity, both for “modeling” correct behavior and for “feedback” on how parents are doing. Parental sensitivity is most likely to develop effectively when it is reinforced just as babies are first showing that they see a link between their behavior and their parents’ responsiveness.

Acting on the evidence:
Early childhood interventionists and parent educators can use video “modeling,” video feedback, and other focused techniques to teach three important skills that parents need to become sensitive to their children’s intent to communicate or interact: awareness/attentiveness, accurate interpretation of cues, and timely and appropriate responsiveness to the child’s behaviors.

Helping parents build awareness and understanding of child behaviors and increase their ability to respond positively to those behaviors is a very effective way early childhood practitioners and parent educators can help enhance parental sensitivity. The degree to which parents are sensitive to their children’s behavior, in turn, can have a significant impact on the way the children learn and develop.

Findings from an analysis of 81 intervention studies conducted by Carl. J. Dunst, Ph.D., and Danielle Z. Kassow, Ph.D., at the Research and Training Center on Early Childhood Development, suggest a number of things practitioners can do to help parents master the skills of sensitive interaction with their children. The studies in question were first examined in 2003 by the researchers M. J. Bakermans-Kranenburg, F. Juffer, and M. H. Van IJzendoorn. The RTC investigators reexamined the studies, which included some 7,636 parent-child pairs, to identify the characteristics of intervention practices that are most likely to change and improve parents’ sensitivity to their children’s behavior. The analysis revealed these important findings:

  1. Highly focused behavioral interventions aimed specifically at improving parental sensitivity to their children’s behavior were most effective when they included efforts to build parents’ awareness and attention to their children’s behavior, parents’ correct interpretation or understanding of their children’s “intent to communicate or interact,” and parents’ appropriate and prompt responsiveness to their children’s behavior.
  2. Video tapes of the parents interacting with their own children, as well as video tapes of other adults “modeling” sensitivity with children, proved to be effective ways of strengthening parent sensitivity to child behavioral and emotional cues.

Although these sensitivity practices are likely to be effective with infants as young as 2 or 3 months of age, the practices were found to be most effective when used at times when infants are first demonstrating an understanding of the way their behavior affects their parents and other adult caregivers. This understanding usually begins to appear about the time babies reach a developmental age of 6 to 8 months.

Let’s look in on a session where early interventionist Dan Langley, working with a first-time mother and father and their 7-month-old daughter, translates these research findings into practice:

Marianne and Albert Moreton have been faithful attendees at the monthly parenting sessions for “first timers” sponsored by the neonatal intensive care unit of the hospital where baby Natasha was born five weeks prematurely.

“Deciding to join Dan’s group was really a matter of common sense,” Albert explains. “We spent so much time and energy preparing for the birth that it only makes sense to try equally hard to learn as much as we can about what to do for Tasha now that she’s here!”

The current appointment is a departure from the typical group class Marianne and Albert attend. At their last third-Thursday session, the participants watched and discussed with Dan a video about responsive parenting styles with infants and toddlers. The video included scenes of a variety of families modeling parental sensitivity as they went about daily activities with their young children. As a follow-up, Dan made arrangements for each family to videotape their own parent/child interactions during the next week in preparation for a scheduled video-viewing session with him in their individual homes.

With Natasha tucked into her crib for the night, Marianne, Albert, and Dan settle in to watch the video.

Before inserting the tape in the VCR, Dan briefly reviews the characteristics of positive parental sensitivity: “While we watch, try to focus on the elements of parenting sensitivity we talked about at our last group meeting. Speak up when you see yourselves, first, being aware—that is, paying attention to Tasha; second, correctly figuring out what Tasha’s behavior means; and third, responding promptly and appropriately to her behavior.”

After a few minutes of teasing and self-conscious laughter, the trio settle in to viewing and discussion.

“I’m impressed,” Marianne comments at the end of the evening. “I thought I really understood this concept, but there’s nothing like seeing yourself in action to separate what you think you’re doing from what you’re really doing with your child!” Marianne identifies several places in the taped session where she appeared to be making a big effort to play with the baby and engage her attention while totally missing what Natasha’s behavior was actually communicating about the baby’s interests and feelings. “I kept trying to thrill her with the new rattle toy,” the young mom explains, “but I can see now that Tash was turning her head away and becoming agitated, clear signs she’d rather get as far away as possible from that bothersome noise. I just didn’t realize....”

“The biggest lesson for me was seeing how I’d simply defer to Marianne, relying on her to figure out what Tasha’s behavior meant,” Albert says. “There were at least four times where I said something like, ‘What’ does she want now, honey?’ instead of looking up from the paper and figuring it out for myself. I’m gonna change that!”

Dan summarizes the session, reminding each of the parents of the many instances of sensitive responding captured on their tape. “We saw some really good stuff, and you found places ripe for improvement. Well, friends, I call that a good night’s work!”

Take another look:
The complete research synthesis summarized in this issue of Bottomlines is available to read or download free of charge as Bridges, Volume 3, Number 3 on the products page of the RTC web site, Dunst, C. J. , & Kassow, D. Z. (2004). Characteristics of Interventions Promoting Parental Sensitivity to Child Behavior. Bridges, 3(3). All of our exciting print, web-based, and multimedia materials of interest to parents and early childhood practitioners are available from the RTC web site and from Winterberry Press, To order by telephone, please call 800-824-1174. Visit the Puckett Institute site to learn about all of our projects:

Sense and Sensitivity: Research indicates best ways to boost parental sensitivity to child behavior. The Research and Training Center on Early Childhood Development. ED/OSERS/OSEP. No. 3. Vol. 3. 2004. English.

Last Reviewed: November 2009

Last Updated: October 6, 2014