Early Childhood

Study: Early Head Start Children Outpace Peers

By Linda Jacobson — June 12, 2002 3 min read
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Young children who take part in Early Head Start have stronger cognitive skills, better vocabularies, and more positive attitudes than children who are eligible to participate in the program but do not, according to a newly released, seven-year evaluation of the federally financed child-development effort.

Print copies of the full report, “Making a Difference in the Lives of Infants and Toddlers and Their Families: The Impacts of Early Head Start,” can be ordered by e-mailing Publications at the Mathematica Policy Research, or by calling (609) 275-2350.

What’s more, parents of children in Early Head Start are more likely to support their learning, use positive parenting techniques, and improve their own education and job skills than those who did not receive the services, the study shows.

“The overall pattern of favorable impacts is promising, particularly since some of the outcomes that the programs improved are important predictors of later school achievement and family functioning,” concludes the study, which was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research of Princeton, N.J.

However, those results are more robust among certain populations, particularly African- Americans, and children whose mothers had enrolled in the program while they were still pregnant.

The $654 million program, which serves infants and toddlers from low-income and at-risk families, also makes a greater impact on children and their parents when key aspects of the program—such as child development, health services, family development, and training for the staff— are fully implemented.

“Early Head Start fulfills an important part of this administration’s objective to support families through prevention and early- childhood education and to promote literacy for both parents and children,” U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson said about the results, which were released last week.

Multiple Models

The program began in 1995 and now serves roughly 55,000 children in 664 communities. Unlike the Head Start program for 3- and 4-year-olds, which is almost always offered in a classroom setting, Early Head Start is provided through a combination of center-based, home-based, and mixed arrangements.

For example, Sarah Thurgood, the director of the Bear River Early Head Start program in Logan, Utah, said her program—which serves 75 families and was one of the research sites—decided to use a home-based approach that includes a once-a-week household visit from a member of the staff.

“We wanted the parents to be the primary educators,” Ms. Thurgood said.

The Mathematica study, which involved 3,000 families at 17 sites throughout the country, shows that all of the approaches have led to positive outcomes, although some approaches affected the families in different ways.

The center- based programs, for example, “consistently enhanced cognitive development” and reduced negative social behavior in children, the report says. But that approach didn’t have significant effects on parents’ efforts to become more self-sufficient.

On the other hand, models that used a mix of both center- and home-based services had stronger effects on children’s language development and on parents’ efforts to get jobs.

The effects of Early Head Start were particularly significant among families who had three of the five risk factors that were studied: single parent, welfare recipient, unemployed and out of school, teenage parent, and lacking a high school diploma.

But the effects were not as strong among those who had fewer than three risk factors, and were actually negative among families who had more than three.

“Previous research suggests that low-income families who have experienced high levels of instability, change, and risk may be overwhelmed by changes that a new program introduces into their lives, even though the program is designed to help,” the authors write.

The program, however, does lead to positive outcomes for teenage parents. Those participating in Early Head Start were more likely to be attending school than those who didn’t participate.

And although mothers are more likely than fathers to be involved in the program, Early Head Start is also having a positive effect on fathers and father figures. They were less likely than those in the control group to spank their children.

“This is a program for both the parents,” Ms. Thurgood said. “When we have divorced parents, we do two home visits. We talk a lot about the important role of fathers. You didn’t hear that five years ago.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Study: Early Head Start Children Outpace Peers


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