Bookworms benefit

New research published in the British Educational Research Journal has found that reading for pleasure is more strongly linked to cognitive progress in adolescence than parents’ education.

Data on 3,583 16-year-olds was taken from the 1970 British Cohort Study. This study follows the lives of people born in England, Scotland, and Wales in a single week of 1970, collecting information on health, physical, educational, and social development, and economic circumstances among other factors.

The authors set out to explore the relative importance of economic and cultural resources in determining class differentials in educational outcomes. They found that the home reading culture (including reading to the child and parents reading books and newspapers) was linked to children’s test scores, and this had a role in mediating the influence of parents’ education and also to some extent in mediating parents’ social class.

Childhood reading was linked to substantial cognitive progress between the ages of 10 and 16. Reading was most strongly linked to progress in vocabulary, with a weaker, but still substantial link to progress in mathematics.

The research also found that parental education was much more strongly linked than parental social class to both vocabulary and mathematics scores, broadly supporting the idea that cultural resources matter more to cognitive outcomes than economic resources.

Source: Reading for Pleasure and Progress in Vocabulary and Mathematics (2015), British Educational Research Journal, 41(6).

The varying impact of an earlier years programme

A paper from MDRC analyses variation in the effects of the Head Start programme in the United States using data from the Head Start Impact Study.

Head Start is the largest US federal programme for early years development of disadvantaged children and has served more than 30 million children since 1965.

The MDRC paper confirms previous studies that suggested substantial variation in the effects of Head Start in relation to the individual, subgroup, and between Head Start Centers.

The main findings were:

  • Head Start improved cognitive outcomes in children with the lowest cognitive skills and tended to reduce disparities between children in key cognitive outcomes.
  • Dual-language and Spanish-speaking children with low pretest scores gained the most from Head Start.
  • Much of the positive effect of Head Start came from mitigating for limited prior English; the positive effect on children with limited English persisted for at least three years.

The added value of Head Start compared with local alternatives varied substantially between Centers and reflected differences in provision (such as hours of care, teacher education, and classroom quality).

Some Head Start Centers were much more effective than alternatives (including parental care) and others were much less effective than alternatives.

Source: Quantifying Variation in Head Start Effects on Young Children’s Cognitive and Socio-Emotional Skills Using Data from the National Head Start Impact Study (2015), MDRC.

Preschool fade out

A working paper from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia investigated the persistence of effects of early childhood interventions and asked whether these effects fade systematically. The study found that “by the end of kindergarten [Year 1] children who attended preschool are no longer outperforming on measures of reading and math relative to their peers.”

The study used two datasets: a 2010 kindergarten cohort, which the authors used to explore the relationship between attending preschool and cognitive and behavioural skills at school entry and through first grade; and a 1998 kindergarten cohort, which enabled comparisons of the effects of preschool attendance in 1998 and 2010.

In 1998 and 2010, children who attended preschool showed benefits in cognitive skills when they started school. Analysis of the 1998 cohort showed that these benefits persisted through kindergarten and first grade (equivalent to the end of Key Stage 1). Analysis of the 2010 cohort showed that, despite their advantage when first attending kindergarten, preschoolers had no cognitive advantage over other children by the end of the kindergarten year.

The fade-out effect was similar whether children attended preschool full-time or part-time and irrespective of kindergarten class size, length of the kindergarten day, and other quality measures.

The results are similar to a recent report in Best Evidence in Brief, which compared children in England who went to preschool in the late 1990s with those from 2005 onwards. Again, the older children’s benefits persisted, whereas the younger ones’ faded.

Source: Working Paper: Preschool Fade Out (2015), Curry School of Education

FITKids programme benefits body and mind

Results of a randomised study that compared pupils who attended FITKids (a daily after-school fitness programme) to those who did not showed benefits for the FITKids group in attention, memory, and task-switching.

The study involved 221 eight- to nine-year olds matched by age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and aerobic fitness during the school years 2009-2013. The experimental groups participated in the FITKids programme for two hours a day after school for nine months. Each day they spent 30 minutes at activity stations, followed by a rest/education period then about 45 minutes of organised games. The control groups were put on a waiting list for the FITKids programme.

All groups were pre- and post-tested on fitness and cognitive measures. Both groups demonstrated post-test gains in aerobic fitness, but these were significant only in the experimental group. The experimental group demonstrated twice the accuracy in cognitive tasks at post-test compared with the control group.

The authors concluded that a daily after-school fitness programme improves brain health. They warned that policies that seek to increase academic achievement by replacing physical education and break times with academic classes may inadvertently do more harm than good.

Source: Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function (2014), Pediatrics 134(4)

Boosting the life chances of non-white boys

A new report from MDRC looks at what is known about the economic and social disadvantage of non-white young men in the US and the evidence behind initiatives that may help to tackle this problem.

The paper reviews the results from a number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and highlights promising interventions. Interventions are divided into two broad categories: (a) Proactive Approaches: preventive interventions aimed at young men who are still connected to positive systems (like schools or community colleges) that seek to enhance their success in moving through those systems and on to productive careers, and (b) Reconnection Approaches: interventions targeting those who have disconnected from positive systems. The report also lists ongoing research with results expected soon.

The authors note that well-targeted and well-implemented programmes can make a difference, but to make a lasting difference, successful interventions must be taken to scale — that is, replicated and expanded successfully in new places and settings.

As well as identifying proven and promising programmes, the authors outline four additional (evidence-based) approaches that could have wider implications for supporting young people from underperforming groups. These are:

  • Encouraging young people to apply for the best higher education establishment they are capable of attending, not “undermatching”;
  • Specialised support within higher education for students from underperforming groups;
  • Embedding Cognitive Behavioral Therapy within employment schemes for those within the justice system; and
  • New approaches to summer jobs and internships to help give work experience to help build work-readiness, a CV, and gain references.

Source: Boosting the Life Chances of Young Men of Color: Evidence from Promising Programs (2014), MDRC

My Baby & Me programme shows promise

A new article published in Developmental Psychology examined the efficacy of a parenting intervention called My Baby & Me. The intervention runs from the third trimester of pregnancy until children are 2½, and focuses on changing specific aspects of mothers’ responsive behaviours with their children. It is delivered through 55 personal coaching sessions, 22 of which are based on the Play and Learning Strategies (PALS) curriculum.

A total of 361 high-risk mothers (with low income and educational achievement) from four states were enrolled in the study. Half were randomly assigned to the full 55 session high-intensity (HI) coaching programme (in the mother’s home or a place of her choice), and half to a low-intensity (LI) condition that included monthly phone calls from a coach, printed information, and community resource referrals. Videotaped observations of mother–child play were coded at five time points for a variety of maternal and child behaviours and skills.

The study found that, compared to mothers in the LI group, mothers in the HI group showed higher levels of contingent responsiveness, higher-quality verbal stimulation, and more verbal scaffolding by 30 months, with higher levels of warmth and greater decreases in physical intrusiveness and negativity when their children were 24 months. By 30 months, children in the HI group showed more rapid increases and higher levels of engagement with the environment, expressive language skills, and social engagement, as well as more complex toy play and fewer behaviour problems than those in the LI group.

The authors conclude that the positive outcomes for the programme can be explained by a strong theoretical framework, a consistent focus on maternal responsiveness, high dosage, and trusting relationships with coaches beginning before the child was born. However, they also note that it can be very challenging to keep participants engaged in such a lengthy intervention.

Source: “My Baby & Me”: Effects of an Early, Comprehensive Parenting Intervention on At-risk Mothers and Their Children (2014), Developmental Psychology, 50(5).