Head Start programs, such as the one here at James B. McPherson Elementary School in Chicago's Ravenwsood neighborhood, can have a big impact on its students. Head Start also faces budget cuts.
New research shows preschool programs have major benefits for young children, even as the federal government considers cutting the funding for Head Start, an early childhood program that serves over 36,000 preschool students in Illinois and over 980,000 preschool students nationally.
“Limiting access to preschool would put a number of children at a real disadvantage once they enter into kindergarten,” said Lori Skibbe, an assistant professor of child development at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., whose research on preschool was published in this month’s issue of Early Childhood Quarterly.
The study found that preschool helps students improve literacy and also that two years of preschool are better than one. Further, researchers suggest preschools spend even more time developing literacy and vocabulary, in addition to building students’ self-regulation, or self-control, skills.
“Children with low self-regulation often have difficulties paying attention in the classroom and are more likely to act out in ways that might be considered aggressive,” Skibbe said.
Teaching students self-control skills, including how to manage downtime and maintain focus, in preschool could help children succeed academically later in life, she said.
Teachers need to structure classrooms so that students are always engaged and also learn to find positive distractions, such as finding a book to read, when they are not, Skibbe said.
Preschool historically has been a place for learning social and as well as academic skills and can make a big difference for children, said Gayle Mindes, an early childhood education professor at DePaul University in Chicago.
Strong, certified early childhood educators know to structure classrooms in ways that supports’ kids abilities to sustain interest in a program, she said.
Mindes said it’s important for parents to look for accredited programs where teachers know to focus on “rich kinds of literacy activities.”
For students from low-income communities, such as those who attend Head Start, this focused instruction might be even more pivotal.
The study mentioned that Head Start may not have a strong impact on students’ social abilities, which do pave the way for focus and motivation in school. It does have a positive impact on students’ literacy skills, but further research on how preschool affects learners from low-income backgrounds, Skibbe said.
“Many children living in low-income communities struggle to learn everything they need to do well in kindergarten,” she said. “Researchers have found the achievement gap is impacted by the smaller vocabulary of students from low-income homes.”
Legislation currently being debated in the U.S. House of Representatives proposes cutting funding to Head Start, a program that services over one million low-income children nationally in its preschool and other early education programs.
The program was developed in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty in order to help impoverished children be prepared academically and socially for school. In Illinois, it offers prenatal services for pregnant women up to pre-kindergarten classes children.
The passing of the bill, H.R. 1, would mean Head Start would be available to 8,600 fewer preschool-age students in Illinois, said Lauri Morrison-Frichtl, executive director of the Illinois Head Start Association in Springfield. Area Head Start programs also face financial challenges because of the future loss of federal stimulus dollars, she said.
The bill, sponsored by Cong. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), would affect about 200,000 children nationally, said Sally Aman, representative for the National Head Start Association in Washington, D.C..
The bill is part of the Republican answer to President Obama’s budget. The White House has stated its intention to continue early education programs, including Head Start.
Future cuts or funding notwithstanding, “families are just lining up” to get a spot for their children in Head Start programs across Illinois, Morrison-Frichtl said. Hundreds are on the waiting list, she said.
It’s not enough for children to wait until kindergarten to begin schooling, Skibbe said.
“Parents can provide a lot of great supports to their children,” she said. “But this does not replace a good preschool education.