Pre-K and early Head Start programs enhance children's development, say researchers

November 02, 2005

WASHINGTON -- In two studies appearing in a special issue of Developmental Psychology, researchers show the benefits of universal pre-K programs (serving 4-year-olds) and Early Head Start programs (serving infants, toddlers, and their families) on children's cognitive and language development, but especially for those children who are from low-income families. The study of pre-K documented benefits in several aspects of school readiness, and the Early Head Start study showed gains in social-emotional development and benefits for parents as well. Developmental Psychology is published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Findings from both studies confirm the positive effects of these programs for children from birth to age five, including higher performance in children's cognitive and language functioning. The Early Head Start program benefited children's social and emotional development and health as well as reduced aggressive behavior, and improved parent-child relations, and the pre-K program increased parents' involvement in school and home activities.

In the study authored by public policy professor William T. Gormley, Jr., Ph.D., and his colleagues of Georgetown University, 1,567 pre-K 4-year-old children and 1,461 children who just completed one of the pre-K programs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were compared on letter-word identification, spelling and applied problems. Statistical controls for demographic characteristics equalized the two groups. Those children who participated in the state-funded universal pre-K program did better on cognitive tests that measured pre-reading and reading skills, prewriting and spelling skills and math reasoning and problem-solving skills than those children who did not participate in the pre-K program.

The pre-K program improved performances for children from different ethnic backgrounds (Hispanic, Black, White and Native American) and income brackets (measured by those who are eligible for a full price lunch, a reduced-price lunch and no lunch subsidy), according to the study. Disadvantaged children and Hispanic children benefited the most.

This study, says lead author Gormley, is an improvement over past studies on effectiveness of school readiness programs because it uses more scientifically sound methods. "We use a methodological design that reduces the likelihood of biasing our selection of children and we use standardized measurements that are administered to the children only by college-educated and specially trained teachers."

The Georgetown team concluded that universal pre-K programs run by the public schools can prepare children from varied backgrounds to learn the foundations of reading, writing and problem solving and be better able to master these skills in later grades.

The second study examined the benefits of Early Head Start programs for young children and their families using a rigorous experimental design. These programs were originally developed in the mid-1990s as an expansion of the federally funded Head Start program to enhance children's development while strengthening low-income families.

This study conducted by a team of researchers at Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton and Columbia University examined 3,001 families who applied to 17 Early Head Start programs located in rural and urban areas across the United States. The families were randomly assigned to enroll in the program or to serve as the control group. Families were eligible to participate in this program if their incomes were at or below the federal poverty level and were expecting a child or had a child under a year old. Ten percent of the families participating could be above the poverty level.

The children were assessed on measures of cognitive, language, social and emotional development and health (overall status and immunization rates) at 14 months, 24 months and then at 36 months. Parents of the children who participated in the program were compared to parents whose children did not participate in the Early Head Start program on how they related to their children, specifically, how supportive or detached they were when interacting with their child, how supportive the home environment was for children's cognitive and language development, whether parents read to their child daily and how often they spanked their child.

Each Early Head Start program provided either home- or center-based services or a combination of both. Programs that met the federal Head Start program performance standards produced the best results. By directly assessing the children and observing them interacting with their parents, the authors found that the children in the programs performed better on cognitive and language development measures than the children in the control group. These children scored lower on an aggressive behavior problems scale and showed higher levels of attention in a play situation while being better able to engage their parents during parent-child interactions.

From interviews with primary caregivers and parents and through observation of parents interacting with their children, the researchers found that the parents who did participate in Early Head Start were more emotionally supportive, provided more language and learning opportunities at home, read to their children more and spanked their children less than did control group parents. The programs that offered a mix of home visiting and center-based services and had fully implemented the performance standards early achieved the best results with the children and the parents.

From these results, said project director John Love, "we can conclude that Early Head Start can influence multiple aspects of development--cognitive, language, and social-emotional--in very young children from poverty-level families. And this happens one or two years before the children typically begin pre-kindergarten programs. Early Head Start participation can also improve overall family life as indicated by the enhanced supportiveness parents demonstrated--aspects of parenting that have the potential to continue supporting children's development after they leave the program." Dr. Love also noted that other research has shown the value of larger vocabularies, reduced behavior problems, and enriched home environments for children being successful when they get to school.
Article: "The Effects of Universal Pre-K on Cognitive Development," William T. Gormley, Jr., Ph.D., Ted Gayer, Ph.D., Deborah Phillips, Ph.D., and Brittany Dawson, M.A., Georgetown University; Developmental Psychology, Vol. 41, No. 6.

Article: "The Effectiveness of Early Head Start for 3-Year-Old Children and Their Parents: Lessons for Policy and Programs," John M. Love, Ph.D., Ellen Eliason Kisker, Ph.D., Christine Ross, Ph.D., Jill Constantine, Ph.D., Kimberly Boller, Ph.D., Louisa Banks Tarullo, Ed.D., Peter Z. Schochet, Ph.D., Diane Paulsell, M.P.A., and Cheri Vogel, Ph.D., Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.; Helen Raikes, Ph.D., University of Nebraska--Lincoln; Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Ph.D., and Christy Brady-Smith, Ph.D., Columbia University; Rachel Chazan-Cohen, Ph.D., U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; and Allison Sidle Fuligni, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles; Developmental Psychology, Vol. 41, No. 6. Full texts of the articles are available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at Gormley:

William T. Gormley, PhD can be reached by phone at 202-687-6817 or by email at John M. Love, PhD can be reached by phone at 541-941-5571 or by email at

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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