Head Start Benefits Children, Parents, Study Finds

By Deborah L. Cohen — April 25, 1990 5 min read

Head Start parents are enthusiastic about the program’s educational and social benefits for children, its support and involvement of parents, and its positive impact on their own parenting, preliminary results from a new study show.

Such findings strengthen the case for using Head Start as a model for public-school efforts to involve parents and to supplement instruction with social and health services, researchers involved in the study argue.

“Because Head Start has the trust of families,” said Sherri Oden, research project director for the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, “it is in àa unique position to provide some leadership.”

The “Follow-up Study of Head Start’s Role in the Lives of Children and Families” was designed and conducted by a panel of Head Start directors with technical assistance from High/Scope.

An interim report was released at a hearing of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in Boston last week; a final report offering more illustrative and statistical analysis is scheduled for release this summer.

Unique Research Approach

Besides drawing on the expertise of Head Start directors, Ms. Oden said, the research effort is unique in that it is based on qualitative assessments by participants rather than on quantitative data on children’s cognitive gains.

To date, much of the research on Head Start has focused on gains in IQ or in achievement scores as children progress through school.

Early studies, starting with the controversial 1969 “Westinghouse Report,” showed children who had participated in Head Start or similar programs were better prepared and more successful in the early grades than their peers--but that their gains did not hold up in later years.

More recent studies, however, have highlighted a “more lasting impact” reflected in reduced dropout rates, grade retention, and special-education placement; greater social adjustment; and reduced delinquency and welfare dependency.

Concerned that existing data offer “insufficient description and understanding of the processes” producing those outcomes, however, the Head Start Research Cooperative Panel “sought to develop a picture of how Head Start was viewed by the very people it served.”

The study examined 132 Head Start graduates currently enrolled in the 1st, 4th, and 10th grades. The findings are based on interviews with the children and their families, teachers, and community leaders at 11 study sites, with additional information supplied by local Head Start staff members.

Only Source of Support

Parents, teachers, and community leaders interviewed for the study reported that the program increased children’s readiness for school, aided their social adjustment, and had long-term effects on their motivation to learn.

Even children having academic difficulties, the teachers reported, “were motivated and persistent in learning, even in the areas of difficulty.”

The provision of such services as health screening and nutritious meals also reaped long-term benefits for children and positive changes in parents’ behavior, according to the study.

“In many cases,” the study panel noted, “Head Start appears to be the only source of external support and nurturance for a family or a mother.”

Many parents said the nutrition program “resulted in their changing their food purchases and cooking for greater nutrition,” and the study showed “nearly every child now regularly sees the doctor and dentist for checkups.”

Respondents also praised the program’s efforts to “involve and empower” parents and “the level of comfort, receptivity, and support” offered by Head Start activities and staff members.

Participating in Head Start activities not only improved their childrearing practices, parents reported, but also helped them address their own health needs and prompted them to seek employment and further their education.

Weak School-Head Start Links

When the children entered school, however, both the “comfort” and frequency of communication between parents and schools diminished.

“Many teachers complained about what they interpreted as a lack of interest and involvement” by parents, the study showed, while parents found schools offered fewer “levels and types of opportunities for their participation.”

The researchers also found that children’s records from Head Start seldom were reviewed by schools, and that most teachers were “unaware of their students’ Head Start experience.”

“This is just one example of the clear need for better communication between the teachers and Head Start,” the research panel noted.

Contact at regular intervals between Head Start and schoolteachers, the panel said, would aid in easing the transition from Head Start to school, as well as in helping schools’ curriculum planning and their parental-involvement efforts.

Such contact would also help teachers gain a “clear picture of the developmental course of the child so they can have some realistic expectations,” Ms. Oden said. “Many of the children have made great strides, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you hadn’t taken a developmental view.”

Besides offering Head Start as a model for parent involvement, said Lawrence Schweinhart, chairman of High/Scope’s research division, the study “holds up a different model of education programming” that includes a developmentally oriented curriculum and preventive health and social services.

The study supports arguments offered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and who last month introduced a measure to extend Head Start principles into the early elementary-school years.

The “Head Start transition-project act” would authorize $10 million for demonstration projects that tap Head Start’s comprehensive-service model and its parental-involvement components in serving low-income elementary-school pupils ages 5 to 8.

Edward F. Zigler, a Head Start founder who is now Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale University and the director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, testified before Mr. Kennedy’s panel last week that the bill “offers an excellent way to strengthen Head Start’s contribution.”

If the demonstration projects prove successful, he said, the federal government should consider replacing “the ineffectual educational model on which Chapter 1 [remedial-education] funds are usually spent” with Head Start’s comprehensive approach.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1990 edition of Education Week as Head Start Benefits Children, Parents, Study Finds