A new study confirms what educators have long been able to detect when students first enter preschool or kindergarten — children who have had more access to books, learning materials and rich conversations during their early years at home have cognitive skills that can contribute to academic success throughout elementary school.
Conducted by researchers at New York University, the study shows that high-quality parent-child interaction, such as labeling objects for children and responding to their cues, can lead to later academic success. Outcomes were also similar for white, black and Hispanic children and for those from English-speaking and Spanish-speaking backgrounds.
For the study, the researchers conducted home visits with more than 2,200 families enrolled in the Early Head Start Research Evaluation Project when the children were 14 months, 2 years, 3 years, in pre-K and then in fifth grade. Children were assessed on vocabulary, letter and word identification, and math problem-solving in pre-K, and on vocabulary, reading, math, and general cognitive abilities in fifth grade.
Educators have become increasingly aware of what has been called the “opportunity gap” — disparities in educational opportunities between children in low-income communities and those in more advantaged families and neighborhoods. But the gap clearly begins long before children enter school. And closing it, research shows, begins with giving parents access to information about healthy child development and opportunities to network with other parents.
Many school districts operate Parents as Teachers or other home visiting programs to support families of young children in their communities. Many elementary school principals have also built connections with early-childhood providers to get a better sense of the early learning experiences children have before they enter kindergarten. This March document from New America details that additional flexibility provided under the Every Student Succeeds Act that would allow schools to increase partnerships that support early learning.
While opportunity gaps clearly still exist, research also shows that widespread attention to the importance of children’s early learning and development in recent years has improved outcomes for some. A 2016 study shows that between 1998 and 2010, disparities in school readiness skills between children from high- and low-income households declined. Researchers said one explanation for the improvements is the “cultural changes in parenting practices that have increased low-income children’s exposure to cognitively stimulating activities at home.”