There are many reasons why some children have a harder time adjusting to school — poor health and nutrition, lead exposure, poor prenatal care, lack of parental availability and skills, lack of access to enriching materials and environments, among other psychosocial, medical and socioeconomic challenges to the children and their families.

One study found that while three-quarters of children from moderate or high-income families had the social, emotional and academic skills for school readiness by age 5, fewer than half of children from low-income families did.

Fix Problems in School Before They Start

For this reason it can be more helpful to offer programs to improve school-readiness before children from homes with few economic and academic resources head to school, rather than trying to fix learning problems later in their school careers.

This is a goal of early, Head Start-type programs. These pre-preschool programs provide solid educational, developmental and behavioral foundations for children before they enter the school system by addressing deficits and maximizing strengths.

A recent study in Child Development looked at the impact of one of these programs on the development of preschoolers' language skills and behavior and its effect on parent-child interactions.

Helping kids early does more than give kids a better start.

Educare is a birth to age 5 early education program designed to deliver classroom and family programming with full day, year round services, including programs for parents. The program emphasizes high quality teaching as well as strong school and family partnerships. There are eight children in an average class.

The program uses home visits and parent conferences, plus meetings, activities, classes and social events for parents, to help moms and dads learn how to nurture their children's learning and development, and encourage positive parent-child interactions. Teachers tend to be experienced; most have bachelors or masters degrees and many years of early childhood teaching experience as well as prior Educare experience.

The Study
About 240 children, all starting at about 9 months old, took part in the study. They were enrolled in five schools in four different cities and were randomly assigned to either an Educare or non-Educare program. Researchers tracked them for a year to determine whether the Educare intervention made a difference.

When children have academic and behavior problems in school, they are likely to have fewer positive interactions in the classroom with their teachers and receive less positive feedback and instruction.

Researchers used parent interviews to gather information on the family and performed baseline assessments of children’s auditory language skills at the start of the study. The assessments were repeated after they completed the program, approximately one year later, when the children were, on average, two years old. At that point children's language abilities, social and emotional development were once again evaluated. Parent-child interactions were also reviewed.

Big Gains
Children who were part of the Educare program were better at expressing themselves with language and understanding what was said to them — a big help in school — than kids in the non-enhanced program. They also had fewer behavior problems and more positive interactions with their parents after only one year The improvements held true regardless of the language spoken at home.

Children in the Educare group who had average language skills maintained their developmental level over the year, while in the control group children's scores on language abilities decreased. This finding, the researchers say, is supported by other studies showing that thinking and language skills begin to decline between 9 and 24 months in children from low income families who are not receiving any enrichment or intervention services.

These results support the role language-enriched environments play in helping children develop language skills. Teacher-child conversations, storybook reading and adult-mediated play all foster language development in early childhood.

Helping kids early does more than give kids a better start. When children have academic and behavior problems in school, they are likely to have fewer positive educational interactions with their teachers and receive less positive feedback and instruction. This perpetuates a vicious cycle of low achievement, the authors say. Early parent-child relationships are also important to a child's later social and academic success; the researchers point out that the year of Educare involvement showed positive effects on parenting skills.

The success of the Educare program, after only one year of the intervention, suggests that there will be continued success with longer periods of participation, according to the authors. They call for more study on this and on the program's implications for later school and life success.

Head start-type programs are available across America. If you are the parent of a young child, don't hesitate to look into all the types of preschool education available for your children. Choose programs that have been shown to enhance early childhood development. You may also want to advocate for the availability of such programs in your community.