Early Childhood

Study: Early Head Start Raises Parenting Skills, Children’s Learning

By Linda Jacobson — January 24, 2001 3 min read
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Early Head Start, which provides federally financed child-development services for low-income infants and toddlers, is benefiting parents as well as children, a study concludes.

For More Information

The report, “Building Their Futures: How Early Head Start Programs Are Enhancing the Lives of Infants and Toddlers in Low Income Families,” is available from the Department of Health and Human Services. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Mothers involved in the program demonstrated “more-supportive parenting behaviors” than mothers in a control group of nonparticipants, according to “Building Their Futures: How Early Head Start Programs Are Enhancing the Lives of Infants and Toddlers in Low Income Families,” a report commissioned by the federal government.

Among other benefits, the participating mothers were more likely to read and sing to their children and to have educational toys and books in the home.

“Even those parents who I don’t think had ever thought about reading to their children come in almost every day and ask for a book,” said Patsy Thomas, who directs an Early Head Start program for teenage mothers in Hall County, Ga.

The study also produced other interesting findings. For instance, the parents in the program reported experiencing less family conflict and stress than those in the control group. And they were also more likely than those not in the program to be involved in school or in a job-training program.

The Effect on Children

Assessments through age 2 show that children participating in Early Head Start programs scored higher on tests of cognitive development than those in a control group of other children, according to the study, which also found the participants were less likely to be developmentally at risk.

What’s more, parents reported their children had improved their vocabularies significantly, were using grammatically complex sentences, and had become less aggressive.

“People don’t think about infants and toddlers and literacy,” said Karen McKinney, the director of an Early Head Start program at the Rosemount Center in Washington. “But that’s a large part of our program.”

Olivia A. Golden, the Department of Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary for children and families, said the study shows that “the Early Head Start blueprint of an early, intensive program can yield significant results and brighter outcomes for children.”

The research was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, N.J., and the Center for Children and Families at Columbia University in New York City. The sample includes about 3,000 children at 17 sites throughout the country.

The results draw on a combination of direct assessments, parent reports, and observation by the researchers.

Early Head Start, which began in 1995, was created as part of the 1994 reauthorization of Head Start, the federal preschool program serving 3- and 4-year-olds. More than 600 Early Head Start programs are operating nationwide, serving roughly 45,000 poor families with infants and toddlers.

Services are also targeted to pregnant women. Early Head Start provides services through both center- and home-based arrangements.

Ms. McKinney said her experiences were consistent with the findings of the new report. She just wishes the program could accommodate more children.

“We know we’re just serving a fraction of the population we could,” she said. “We have a waiting list of 100.”

Not All Good News

While the findings of the study are generally positive, the program did not make a difference in some of the areas the researchers evaluated.

For example, mothers involved in Early Head Start did not necessarily have less negative feelings about their children— feelings possibly affected by their children’s behavior or the burdens of motherhood—than mothers not in the program. What’s more, even though the study found children in the program became less aggressive, it also said there was no impact on their ability to regulate some emotions. Another finding showed the program had no impact on children’s attention spans.

The program did not have an entirely positive effect on parents, either. Parents’ employment status did not improve at a greater rate than that of parents in the control group—nor did their dependency on welfare drop at a greater rate.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Study: Early Head Start Raises Parenting Skills, Children’s Learning

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