Head Start programs designed for infants and toddlers from low-income families enhance thinking, language, and behavior by age 3, according to the first evaluation of Early Head Start graduates. What's more, the program fosters parenting practices that support healthy development. Although the long-term effects of the program are unknown, many experts think that the combined impact on both children and their parents may mean the benefits will accumulate.
Early Head Start, an extension of the decades-old Head Start program, was established in 1995 on a wave of academic and political interest in brain development during early childhood. Early Head Start offers services such as classes for children and parents, health care, nutrition education, and family counseling. Around the country, 55,000 children take part--a small fraction of those eligible.
At the program's inception, researchers led by developmental psychologist John Love and colleagues at Mathematica Policy Research Inc. in Princeton, New Jersey, randomly assigned 3001 families to Early Head Start programs or a control group. After 3 years, children in Early Head Start performed slightly better on standardized measures of cognitive and language development and behaved better in social situations, the team reports in a study released 3 June by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For example, children enrolled in Early Head Start were less likely to act aggressively. The benefits appeared strongest for children who are especially at risk, including those born to teenage mothers. Moreover, parents of children enrolled in Early Head Start are more supportive of their children's learning, are more likely to read to them daily, show more warmth, and tend to use milder forms of discipline.
Early Head Start programs benefited children whether services were provided at centers, at home, or a mix of the two. That flexibility, researchers say, makes the program all the more valuable. "This should be a clarion call that we have an approach that works and can be scaled up to serve vastly more children," says J. Lawrence Aber, a developmental psychologist at Columbia University in New York City and director of the National Center for Children in Poverty. "We could rapidly grow Early Head Start, and God knows we need it."