University of Oregon neuroscientists said the new university initiative was designed as an addition to the regular Head Start program.
Head Start began by the federal government in 1965 to enhance the education, health, nutrition and parental involvement for families living under the poverty line.
Study leader Helen Neville, the Robert and Beverly Lewis Endowed Chair in Psychology and head the Brain Development Lab, said the intervention involved learning exercises, including games, appropriate for kids ages 3-5. Study co-author Scott Klein said the exercises require clear focus from the children.
As part of the study, parents and caregivers attended weekly 2-hour sessions in which they learned standard parenting practices that build strong relationships and about the value of the attention skills their children were receiving.
A control group of children and parents engaged only in traditional Head Start. A second experimental group included the children's learning exercises but less parental involvement.
"The more parent-focused program was the clear winner," Neville said in a statement. "The children showed significant improvements in their ability to focus -- gains that are holding up over time, based on subsequent preliminary data from ongoing brain-monitoring assessments."
The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.