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June 13, 2002

Research shows children benefit from Early Head Start Programs

Children who participated in Early Head Start programs showed stronger cognitive, language, social and emotional skills than children in a control group of equal size, according to a seven-year study conducted in Pittsburgh and 16 other U.S. cities.

Early Head Start promotes healthy development of low-income children younger than age 3, and their families.

Besides benefiting infants and toddlers, the federally funded program helps participating parents to become more economically self-sufficient and emotionally supportive of their children, and less likely to hit or yell at them, researchers found.

Early Head Start began in late 1995. Today, the program — part of Head Start — serves 55,000 families (including 170 in Pittsburgh) at a cost of $550 million annually.

"The Pittsburgh-based part of this national study involved close to 200 families in this area, half of whom were in the program and half in the control group," said Carol McAllister, the study's principal investigator in Pittsburgh and an assistant professor of behavioral and community health sciences at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health.

"This study involved the first group of children who went through the program," McAllister said.

"What's very impressive about the findings is how comprehensive the positive outcomes are. It isn't just that children who participate in Early Head Start do better in language development. They also do better based on measures of cognitive skills and social and emotional development.

"We also found that [participating] parents were more likely to read to their children, to pursue education themselves and to be employed."

The program had greater positive effects on some subgroups (for example, African American families and families in which mothers enrolled during pregnancy) than others, according to study results. "The earlier the better, in terms of enrolling in Early Head Start, was one of the important findings," said McAllister.

Early Head Start also was found to benefit two difficult-to-serve subgroups: parents at risk for depression and teenage parents.

Vivian Herman, Family Foundations Early Head Start director at Pitt's Office of Child Development, said the study "essentially confirms what we already believed, that the program is making a difference, that parents as well as children are benefiting.

"The fact that we can now tell families, 'Extensive research has shown that Early Head Start has positive effects,' is helpful in terms of encouraging participation. It's also good for our own staff morale," Herman said.

McAllister and other researchers have begun the second year of a Health and Human Services-funded follow-up study of the same children and families who participated in the original study.

"We're trying to see what happens to the children after Early Head Start, which they exit at age 3. Some of them go on to regular Head Start, but some others don't enter any kind of pre-school or early childhood program prior to kindergarten. The followup study will see how these kids develop right up to the point at which they enter kindergarten.

"We're hoping this will become a long-term, longitudinal look at these children as they move along through school," McAllister said.

— Bruce Steele

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