Links between pre-school absenteeism and academic learning

A new study, published in Child Development, found that children in the US pre-school programme Head Start who missed 10% or more of the school year had fewer academic gains than their peers who attended pre-school more regularly.

Arya Ansari and Kelly M Purtell used data from the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) 2009 cohort (n=2,842) to examine the effects of absenteeism among 3- and 4-year-olds on early academic learning. Their findings revealed that, on average, children missed eight days of the school year. However, 12% of children were chronically absent – defined as missing 10% of the school year or more – and missed an average of 22 days of school. Children who missed more days of school, especially those who were chronically absent, demonstrated fewer gains in maths and literacy during the pre-school year. For maths, this was equivalent to approximately two months of lost academic skill gains. In literacy the loss was three months.

The study also found that Black and Latino children were less likely to be absent than white children. Children from households with married parents were less likely to be absent than those from households without two parents. In addition, children were less likely to be absent when they were enrolled in classrooms that operate for more hours per week and in larger and bilingual classrooms. Children were more likely to be absent if their mother showed more depressive symptoms and was unemployed. The quality of interactions between teachers and children positively affected children’s development of literacy skills, and the benefits were roughly twice as large for children who were absent less often.

Source:  Absenteeism in Head Start and children’s academic learning (May 2017), Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.12800

Engaging dads in a parenting intervention improved outcomes

A parenting programme in which fathers engage with their children through reading was found to boost the fathers’ parenting skills while also improving the child’s school readiness and behaviour, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.

The randomised controlled trial, conducted by Anil Chacko and colleagues, evaluated the effects of Fathers Supporting Success in Preschoolers, an intervention that focuses on integrating parent training with shared book reading to improve outcomes among fathers and their pre-school children. For the study, 126 low-income fathers – the majority of whom spoke Spanish – and their children were recruited across three Head Start centres in New York City. The intervention included eight weekly sessions, each lasting 90 minutes. The effects of the programme on parenting skills, child behaviour and language, and outcomes for fathers including stress and depression were measured before and immediately after participation in the programme. Measures included observations by the researchers using a behavioural coding system that measures the quality of parent-child social interactions, reports from the fathers and standardised assessments of child language.

The study found that parenting behaviours, child behaviours and the language development of the children improved. Moderate effect sizes were found for observed positive parenting (+0.63) and for observed child problem behaviour (+0.34). Using the Preschool Language Scales (PLS-4) to measure language outcomes, effect sizes of +0.52 were reported for auditory comprehension and +0.51 for expressive language. Parental stress and depression effect sizes were insignificant. Overall, the findings suggest more than a 30% improvement in parenting and school readiness outcomes.

Source: Engaging fathers in effective parenting for preschool children using shared book reading: a randomized controlled trial (January 2017), Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology

One versus two years of ExCELL in preschool

While the effects of preschool programmes have often been studied, it is less common to find studies examining the effects of programme duration on student learning. Annemarie Hindman and Barbara Wasik from Temple University, Pennsylvania, examined the effects of providing one year versus two years of the teacher professional development programme Exceptional Coaching for Early Language and Literacy (ExCELL) on the language development and learning outcomes of three- and four-year-old children in the US preschool programme, Head Start.

ExCELL provides teachers with individualised coaching by providing a background in the concepts underlying preschoolers’ language and vocabulary development, evolving into ways to develop these skills in the classroom. Teachers are provided with curriculum materials and an academic year of month-long coaching, each month cycling through a group workshop, a coach modelling targeted techniques in the classroom, the teacher using these techniques independently, and finally the coach observing the teacher and providing feedback.

In the present study, 159 four-year-old children in Head Start experienced either one year (n=88), starting at age four, or two years (n=71), starting at age three, with teachers using ExCELL. Children were in 10 Head Start centres in the urban Northeastern United States in adjacent neighbourhoods with demographically similar populations. Almost all students and teachers were African-American and all were native English speakers.

At four years old, children were tested in the spring and autumn using standardised tests measuring vocabulary, sound awareness, and alphabet knowledge. Results showed that although the four-year-olds who had already received one year of the programme entered their second year with stronger vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and alphabet knowledge than their peers who had not yet experienced the programme, by the year’s end, these peers had caught up to them. The authors state that these findings suggest that ExCELL is most effectively taught in the second year of preschool.

Source: Is dosage important? Examining Head Start preschoolers’ language and literacy learning after one versus two years of ExCELL (2016), Early Childhood Development and Care

What counts for future success in maths?

Which preschool maths competencies are most important for later maths achievement? A new study in Early Childhood Research Quarterly attempts to answer this question for low-income and minority children.

The research looked at 781 children who completed the Research-based Early Mathematics Assessment (REMA) in preschool and a further maths assessment in fifth grade. The children came from diverse classrooms in New York and Boston, with 53% of the children African-American and 83% qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

Using state-defined preschool mathematics standards documents, the researchers classified the REMA into a number of domains of mathematical knowledge:

  • Counting and cardinality – basic counting (rote counting, number recognition, one-to-one correspondence) and advanced counting (cardinality, counting forward and back)
  • Patterning – extend and duplicate patterns
  • Geometry – identify, compare, and compose shapes
  • Measurement and data – recognize shapes and identify their attributes by measurement

All the domains were significantly predictive of later achievement, suggesting that children rely on multiple domains of early knowledge when developing later skills. However, counting and numeracy skills, particularly advanced counting skills, were most predictive of later achievement. Early numeracy was predictive of later mathematics achievement while also controlling measurement and data, geometry, and patterning. This suggests that, at least for this group of children, early numeracy was the most predictive of later mathematics ability.

Source: Which preschool mathematics competencies are most predictive of fifth grade achievement? (2016), Early Childhood Research Quarterly

What works for preschoolers?

A new systematic review of research on early childhood programmes in Educational Research Review has been published. The paper seeks to identify effective approaches capable of improving literacy and language outcomes for preschoolers.

Researchers from The Institute for Effective Education (IEE) and The Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE) applied consistent standards to determine the strength of evidence supporting a variety of approaches, which fell into two main categories: comprehensive approaches, which include phonemic awareness, phonics, and other skills along with child-initiated activities, and developmental–constructivist approaches that focus on child-initiated activities with little direct teaching of early literacy skills. Inclusion criteria included use of randomised or matched control groups, evidence of initial equality, a minimum study duration of 12 weeks, and valid measures of literacy and language.

Thirty-two studies evaluating 22 programmes found that early childhood programmes that have a balance of skill-focused and child-initiated activities had significant evidence of positive literacy and language outcomes at the end of preschool and on kindergarten (Year 1) follow-up measures. Effects on both types of measures were smaller and not statistically significant for developmental-constructivist programmes.

Source: Literacy and Language Outcomes of Comprehensive and Developmental-Constructivist Approaches to Early Childhood Education: A Systematic Review (2016), Educational Research Review.

High marks for high-quality preschool

A new report from the RAND Corporation presents findings from a review of research on preschool programmes in the US. Specifically, the report examines whether high-quality preschool produces favourable effects for participating children and their families, the magnitude of the impacts, and how long the benefits last. The preschool programmes ran for one or two years (equivalent to the Reception year, or the Nursery and Reception years, in the UK).

The researchers analysed evaluation findings from 15 full-scale, publicly funded preschool programmes implemented at the national, state, and local levels. The researchers examined evidence for the specific programmes, as well as results from syntheses across multiple preschool programme evaluations. In cases where children had been followed beyond the preschool years, they also considered research regarding longer-term effects.

Key findings of their review include:

  • Favourable impacts have been demonstrated for part- and full-day preschool programmes, as well as one- and two-year programmes, but the research is not definitive about the comparative effectiveness of these options.
  • High quality is a common element among the preschool programmes with the largest effects on school readiness and with sustained effects at older ages. These effective programmes include such features as well-trained classroom teachers who are provided with ongoing professional development support through coaching and other mechanisms, a learning environment that supports teachers and children, a well-defined curriculum that is implemented with fidelity in the classroom and aligned with the early school years, and ongoing monitoring of programme quality and other metrics that support continuous quality improvement.
  • High-quality preschool programmes show sustained benefits for aspects of school performance other than achievement scores, such as lower rates of special education use, fewer students being held back a year, and higher rates of high school graduation.
  • Children across the income spectrum may benefit from high-quality preschool, but the impacts tend to be larger for more disadvantaged children. The researchers also examined evidence on the investment value of preschool, reporting that estimates of the economic return for full-scale high-quality preschool range from about $2 to $4 for every $1 invested.

Source: Informing Investments in Preschool Quality and Access in Cincinnati (2015), RAND Corporation.