Children with fewer opportunities at home gain more from early childcare and education

Photo: MJGDSLibrary. Creative Commons.

A new analysis of data from an experimental study of the US Head Start Program reveals that participating 3- and 4-year-old children who would otherwise be cared for at home show greater progress than those who would otherwise be cared for in another centre. This was particularly so for children who were dual language learners who spoke a language other than English. In contrast, Head Start makes much less difference to children whose parents could and would sent their children to another centre-based child care service if the Head Start Program were not available.

Head Start is a US program for low-income families, supporting 900,000 children annually in about 1,600 programs. Beyond childcare, Head Start includes comprehensive social support including health care and parenting support.

In 2011 only 42% of preschool children from low-income families used centre-based services like Head Start. That compares to 59% of children from higher-income families. Such differential exposure to centre-based care may have implications for differences in school readiness between children of different social backgrounds.

The question of whether publicly funded preschool care works in bringing new advantages to children is an important one, because this kind of care does not come cheap.

The researchers from the University of California, Berkeley; Harvard University; the University of Pittsburgh; and Abt Associates, led by Avi Feller, looked at 3- and 4-year-olds participating in Head Start. They predicted whether these children would otherwise be cared for at home or in another centre by looking at a range of attributes, including characteristics of their families and their neighbourhoods. The researchers then compared the two groups’ scores on a language skills test that was administered at the start and end of the year. The test involved asking children to match spoken vocabulary words to the appropriate corresponding picture. Children who otherwise would have been cared for at home improved much more.

Other research has shown that children of this age cared for in a home-based childcare program do less well on cognitive tests than children in high-quality centre-based care, probably because the home environment is less stimulating.

However, the advantage of preschool education, as measured by cognitive tests such as these, tends to decline over time. Yet high-quality preschool programs are linked with long-term positive impacts, such as high school graduation, health, employment and avoidance of crime.

There is a seeming paradox in this – the measured short-term cognitive benefits decline, but long-term social and health benefits remain. Other recent research, also reported on the Child and Family Blog has explored whether another measure of a young child’s development might resolve the paradox – rather than looking at performance in language and math tests, we could look at the child’s “executive function,” – their ability to suppress impulsive behaviour and resist temptations, to hold and use information in their minds for short periods of time, to shift attention between competing tasks or rules, and to maintain attention when there are distractions. Perhaps these are skills picked up in preschool education that are the true foundation for the child’s future.

Feller A, Grindal T, Miratrix L, Page L, Compared to What? Variation in the Impacts of Early Childhood Education by Alternative Care-Type Settings, Annals of Applied Statistics 2016