Preschool social, emotional enrichment has long-term benefits for low-income children

December 21, 2020
Children may ultimately benefit more from a preschool curriculum focused primarily on language skills and on the underlying core concepts behind academic skills, a researcher said.

Children may ultimately benefit more from a preschool curriculum focused primarily on language skills and on the underlying core concepts behind academic skills, a researcher said.

Early childhood education programs that focus on enriching social and emotional growth for socioeconomically disadvantaged children at a young age provide positive effects that can be seen for many years as the students continue into elementary, middle and even high school, according to a new study.

The research, published on Dec. 10 in The American Journal of Psychiatry, found that children who attend Head Start preschools that make use of the Research-Based, Developmentally Informed, or REDI, program were less likely to experience behavioral issues in school or develop anxiety or depression when compared to preschools that did not use the program.

Head Start is a federally funded program that assists low-income families to access a high-quality early childhood education program, following studies that showed how access, or lack thereof, was a key difficulty for many such families. The Head Start REDI program was developed at Penn State University to build upon the preexisting Head Start program, and it is aimed at improving social and emotional skills for children who may be feeling specific kinds of stress due to their family’s economic situation, said Karen Bierman, author of the study, and Penn State's Evan Pugh, professor of psychology.

The study focused on 25 preschool centers that used Head Start, with classrooms being randomly assigned to implement the REDI program enhancements. The children from these classrooms were tracked for several years and compared to the students from the classes that did not use the REDI enrichments. The students in both groups were rated by their teachers on factors such as conduct issues, emotional symptoms, hyperactivity or inattention and peer problems.

By ninth grade, just 6% of students from the REDI program had high ratings of conduct or behavioral problems, compared to 17% of the comparison group. Additionally, only 3% of REDI students had high emotional symptoms compared to 15% of the students from outside the program.

“We were able to show, yes, early childhood education is valuable for school readiness, but it’s even more valuable for long-term well-being and mental health if it is enriched with these more systematic social-emotional learning and language support systems,” Bierman said.

She said that previous research indicated that socioeconomic differences lead to variances in the skills that young children have as they enter kindergarten, with contributors including financial strains and unstable living conditions for low-income families.

“We understand that those stressors that affect parents also affect the developing brain,” Bierman said. “It’s not just about catching kids up in terms of knowing their letters and numbers, it’s also an understanding that … interventions and strategies can be used in early childhood settings to build stronger coping skills, build attention skills, things that then send that child to kindergarten with a stronger base of competencies for future learning.”

The research following students in the REDI program builds upon earlier studies Bierman conducted that demonstrated how a level of social competence during kindergarten could predict numerous long-term outcomes, including high school graduation and employment rates. This is likely due to the developmental skills being built at that age that “support being able to form relationships with other people, being able to organize and understand your feelings, understand other people’s feelings, [and] being able to manage strong feelings,” Bierman said.

While many preschool programs focus on academic preparedness for young children, a problem can arise when those skills are being presented and interpreted in a “superficial” fashion, she said.

Children may ultimately benefit more from a preschool curriculum focused primarily on language skills and on the underlying core concepts behind academic skills, Bierman said. The issue with many academic-focused programs is that students may simply learn to memorize and recite letters, numbers, shapes or colors, which leads to them “getting this very top, superficial assessment without really enriching the underlying skills that are going to fuel later learning,” she said.

Even within the small model program used for this study, the research highlighted the benefit of deep integration of social and emotional learning during early childhood, especially for at-risk children from low-income families — which can and should be scaled up for a wider public health benefit, the researchers said.

“We were able to follow these kids in the long run and see the benefit down the line,” Bierman said. “The next challenge is figuring out ways to pull out of it the critical elements so that the program can be scaled more easily on a broader level.”

The study, “Reducing Adolescent Psychopathology in Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Children With a Preschool Intervention: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” was published in The American Journal of Psychiatry on Dec. 10. It was authored by Karen Bierman, Brenda Heinrichs and Janet Welsh, all of Penn State University, and Robert Nix of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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