Do positive impacts at Reception age last?

In the US, compulsory schooling usually starts a year later than in the UK, with the first year – kindergarten – equivalent to Year 1. Pre-kindergarten programmes in the US are run privately or through federally funded initiatives typically aimed at deprived children, such as Head Start.
Tennessee’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Program (TN-VPK) is an optional pre-kindergarten programme for four-year‐old children. First priority is given to children who are identified as at-risk (ie, eligible for free or reduced price lunch, with disabilities, or with English as an Additional Language).

In 2013, the Peabody Research Institute published the results of a randomised controlled trial in which children applying to the programme were admitted on a random basis. The outcome measures were: emergent literacy, language, and maths; and measures of pupils’ performance or status other than academic achievement.

During the pre‐kindergarten school year, the children who participated in TN‐VPK gained significantly more on all of the direct assessments of academic skills than the children who did not attend. Positive effects were also found on kindergarten teachers’ ratings of children’s preparedness for kindergarten and, to a lesser extent, on their ratings of the children’s classroom work behaviour and social behaviour.

However, at follow-up at the end of kindergarten, the researchers found that the effects of TN‐VPK on achievement measures had greatly diminished, and the differences between participants and non-participants were no longer statistically significant. Similarly, at the end of first grade (UK Year 2), there were no statistically significant differences between TN‐VPK participants and non-participants on these measures (with one minor exception).

Sources: Evaluation of the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program: End of Pre‐K Results from the Randomized Control Design (2013), Peabody Research Institute. Evaluation of the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program: Kindergarten and First Grade Follow‐Up Results from the Randomized Control Design (2013), Peabody Research Institute.

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).

Achievement gap narrowing for looked-after children

A new statistical release, published by the Department for Education, explores a range of outcome measures at national and local authority level in England for children continuously looked after for at least 12 months. The release shows there has been modest progress.

At Key Stage 1 (age 6-7), achievement in mathematics, reading and writing has improved gradually between 2009 and 2013. The achievement gaps between looked-after children and their peers have also fallen slightly during that time.

At Key Stage 2 (age 10-11), the picture is similar, with the achievement gap falling between 2009 and 2013, although it is still substantial. In reading, the gap fell from 27% to 23%, while in mathematics it fell from 32% to 26%.

At Key Stage 4 (age 15-16), 15.3% of looked-after children achieved 5 or more A* to C GCSEs or equivalent including English and mathematics (up from 11% in 2009). Changes to the attainment gap are less clear, but this compares with 58% of non-looked-after children who achieved 5 or more A* to C GCSEs or equivalent including English and mathematics in 2013. Although it is important to note that a high proportion of looked-after children (67.8%) have special educational needs, the achievement gap is substantial and influenced by a broad range of factors.

Source: Outcomes for Children Looked After by Local Authorities (2014), Department for Education.

What works for school discipline?

The US Department of Education has published a guidance document for improving school climate and discipline. In response, Child Trends has released a new research brief on school discipline that provides five “things to know” and links to research evidence on various supports and policies. The brief considers, among other issues, the evidence supporting the use of zero tolerance policies.

This 2011 research brief found that there was a lack of rigorous research, but existing case studies and analyses of suspension and expulsion data suggest that zero tolerance policies are not deterring misbehaviour. In contrast, non-punitive programs that take a largely preventive approach to school discipline have been found to keep students and schools safe by reducing the need for harsh discipline. These programs include targeted behavioural supports for students who are at-risk for violent behaviour, character education programs, or positive behavioural interventions and supports that are introduced across a school.

Intensive tutoring and counselling for struggling teenagers

This working paper, published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, presents findings from a randomised controlled trial of an intervention that aims to provide both academic and non-academic remediation for disadvantaged teenagers who are falling behind and at risk of dropping out of school. The academic portion of the intervention includes intensive, individualised one-to-two maths tutoring provided for an hour every day. The non-academic portion includes social-cognitive skills training such as learning how to evaluate consequences ahead of time.

The study took place in a high school in a deprived area of Chicago with high levels of ethnic minority pupils and where nearly all the pupils are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The sample was 106 males aged 14–16 who were identified using an “academic risk index”.

Findings showed that participation in the intervention reduced course failures by about 66% in both maths and non-maths classes, increased rates of being “on track” for graduating high school by 46%, and showed large gains in a broad measure of maths test scores.

These are promising findings for a small-scale pilot, but testing the intervention at scale will be an important next step. Also, the current study measured outcomes only during the programme year, so no conclusions can be drawn yet regarding lasting impacts. Cost is another factor, and the authors do note that intensive small-group tutoring can be expensive. However, they say that the tested intervention (costing roughly $4,400 per pupil) seems to yield larger gains in adolescent outcomes per dollar spent than many other intervention strategies.

Source:The (Surprising) Efficacy of Academic and Behavioral Intervention with Disadvantaged Youth: Results from a Randomized Experiment in Chicago (2014),NBER.

Positive findings for CBC family-school programme

A new article in the Journal of School Psychology describes a large-scale randomised controlled trial testing the effects of a family–school partnership model called Conjoint Behavioral Consultation (CBC). CBC aims to promote behavioural competence and decrease problem behaviour in children identified by their teachers as disruptive. It involves evidence-based interventions across home and school settings, with direct opportunities for parents to collaborate in problem solving and planning, defined responsibilities for plan implementation, and progress monitoring of children’s goals.

The evaluation involved 207 children aged five to nine with disruptive behaviour. It aimed to investigate the impact of CBC on a number of outcomes in the home setting (results of school-based outcomes were reported in 2012). The authors found significant increases in home-school communication and in parent competence in problem solving for participants in CBC relative to a control group. They also found that the children in the CBC group showed significantly greater decreases in arguing, defiance, noncompliance, and tantrums. CBC was particularly effective under conditions of increasing risk (eg, fewer than two adults in the home, maternal education less than high school, low income), which the authors say suggests the potential to advance research-based services for children and families who are most vulnerable.

Source: The Efficacy of Conjoint Behavioral Consultation on Parents and Children in the Home Setting: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial (2013), Journal of School Psychology, 51(6).