How preschool intervention leads to greater educational attainment

September 17, 2004

In the past decade, research on early intervention for high-risk children has expanded from a reliance on the main effects of the intervention to understanding the mechanisms of change. This change results, in part, from evidence that participating in preschool programs not only enhances children's school readiness and early school performance, but is associated years later with a reduced risk of remedial education and delinquent behavior, and with higher levels of educational attainment.

One such study is the Chicago Longitudinal Study (CLS), an ongoing, 19-year investigation of a school-based Chicago preschool called the Child-Parent Center. The Child-Parent Center is the second-oldest federally funded preschool program in the country, offering comprehensive services to low-income children beginning at age 3. The CLS has followed the social adjustment of 1,539 children from preschool through early adulthood, 93 percent of whom were African American and all of whom grew up in high-poverty neighborhoods. Results from the CLS found that, compared with children who didn't attend preschool, children who participated in the Child-Parent Center had significantly higher rates of high school completion (63 vs. 53 percent) and more years of completed schooling by age 21, with significantly lower rates of juvenile arrests (13 vs. 22 percent) and arrests for violent offenses (7 vs. 14 percent) by age 18, as well as significantly lower rates of grade retention and special education placement.

We used these findings as a starting point for our study, designed to investigate the pathways through which the effects of preschool participation lead to these higher rates of school completion and lower rates of delinquency. We investigated the contributions of five potential mechanisms on youths' educational and social well-being to explain the link between preschool and later well-being: cognitive advantage, family support, social adjustment, motivational advantage (i.e., commitment to school), and school support (i.e., attendance in high quality schools and school mobility).

We found that the primary contributors to higher rates of school completion and lower rates of delinquency included attendance in high-quality elementary schools and less frequent mobility (school support), word analysis skills in kindergarten and avoidance of grade retention (cognitive advantage), and parental involvement in school and avoidance of child maltreatment (family support).

As measured by school commitment and classroom adjustment, motivation and social adjustment made smaller contributions to the eventual positive outcomes.

Overall, the five areas outside of the initial early intervention accounted for 58 percent of the main effect of preschool on high school completion, and 79 percent of the main effect on juvenile arrest. For school completion, the cognitive advantage, family support and school support mechanisms each accounted for about one-third of the impact of preschool. For juvenile arrest, the school support mechanism, mainly through attendance in high quality schools, accounted for one-half of the impact of preschool, while the cognitive advantage and family support mechanisms each accounted for about 20 percent of the preschool impact.

Our findings show that the long-term effects of early intervention come about not just because preschool improves children's cognitive and literacy skills, but also because the early intervention promotes positive parenting practices and enrollment in high quality elementary schools as well as school stability.

The more that contemporary preschool programs affect these educational and family experiences i.e., positive parenting and enrollment in high-quality schools, and literacy skills, the more likely it is that positive long-term effects will occur. Additionally, preschool programs that promote both educational enrichment and family support behavior will likely also make greater contributions to later well being.
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 75, Issue 5, Paths of Effects of Early Childhood Intervention on Educational Attainment and Delinquency: A Confirmatory Analysis of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers by A.J. Reynolds, S.R. Ou, and J. W. Topitzes, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Copyright 2004 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

*Please contact Karen Melnyk at SRCD (see above) for author availability and contact information.

Society for Research in Child Development

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