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New Study: Quality Preschool Experience Provides Critical Support to Most Vulnerable Children Living in Poverty

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that an innovative Head Start program featuring an improved curriculum and better teaching practices can help prevent increasing disparities in children’s thinking and problem solving skills over time.

Dr. Robert Nix, professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and an affiliate of the Center for Child and Family Well-Being at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is an author on the study.  “These findings highlight the potential of high-quality preschool programs to provide critically important support to children living in poverty so they can thrive,” states Nix.

This study focused specifically on Executive function skills which include such abilities as paying attention to what is important, being able to think about something in new ways, resisting impulses, and remembering and manipulating information in one’s head. These skills are crucial to school success, both in terms of academic functioning and in terms of having good relationships with teachers and friends. It is difficult to learn to read and do math if one cannot think flexibly and apply problem-solving skills to new challenges, and it is difficult to get along with others if one cannot pay attention to the rules of a game or resist impulses. Because of self-reinforcing feedback loops that result from regular practice, children’s executive function skills tend to diverge or fan out over time, such that children who start high get further and further ahead over time, and children who start low fall further and further behind.

Developed by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and tested in preschools for children living in poverty across Pennsylvania, the Head Start REDI (Research-Based Developmentally Informed) program integrates early language/literacy and social-emotional learning curricula and supports better teaching practices. For example, teachers were taught how to read books about sharing or resolving conflicts in ways that would promote children’s language/literacy skills and their social-emotional functioning.

When Head Start classrooms were randomly assigned to implement Head Start REDI, compared to Head Start as usual, the children who started preschool with the highest levels of executive function skills tended to improve at a greater rate through the end of third grade than their peers. More important, children who started preschool with the lowest levels of executive function skills – and who are therefore most vulnerable to school failure – tended to remain relatively stable; their executive function skills did not fall further behind those of their peers through third grade. These children also scored higher than expected on measures of academic achievement.

“This study provides additional evidence of the life-long positive benefits of attending a high-quality preschool program. Many studies now show that attending such a program can make a profound difference in the likelihood of doing well and avoiding problems,” says Dr. Nix. “We cannot emphasize enough the importance of the early years to children’s positive life-long adjustment. Efforts, such as the Prenatal to Five initiative in the Center for Child and Family Well-Being, represent some of our best chances to reduce disparities and create greater equity in our society over the long run,” he adds.

The study was published in Psychological Science and was supported by a grant from The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.