Four-year-olds enrolled in Head Start made smaller academic gains when they shared their classroom with 3-year-olds, according to a study out this week by a team of researchers at the University of Texas, Austin.
By collecting data on 2,800 children in nearly 500 Head Start classrooms and comparing academic performance metrics of 4-year-olds in classrooms with 3-year-olds and those in separate classrooms, the research team found that 4-year-olds in shared classrooms were behind. In classrooms where the age groups were evenly split, 4-year-olds were an average of nearly five months behind their peers in separate classrooms. Even when only 20 percent of a classroom was made up of 3-year-olds, the older students were an average of two months behind.
“We’ve known for a couple of years that 4-year-olds don’t perform as well in Head Start as other children, and this may be a big reason why,” said Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at UT Austin.
The study did not examine the reasons for the gap, but the researchers do have some hypotheses, according to a statement released Tuesday:
Gershoff says one possibility is that in mixed-age classes, teachers tailor their lessons to be developmentally appropriate for younger children. Compared with 4-year-olds, 3-year-old children know about half as many words, on average, and they have much less familiarity with numbers, letters, more complex sentence construction and concepts of space and time.
The research was funded in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the full article is due to be published soon (date not given) in the journal Psychological Science.
Graphic: Click to enlarge. Provided by the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas, Austin.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.