Big gains for kids in expanded Head Start

U. OREGON (US) — Preschoolers in Head Start who took part in an additional intervention showed significant improvement in behavior and attention, and their parents had reduced levels of stress.

The findings, from the first phase of a long-term research project that will monitor families over time, are published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The initiative is designed as an addition to the regular Head Start program, which was launched by the federal government in 1965 to enhance the education, health, nutrition, and parental involvement for families living below the poverty line.

A preliminary economic analysis, not included in the new study, estimates that implementing the program widely at Head Start sites would add just $800 per family and could yield a strong return on investment, says project leader Helen Neville, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

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“This intervention didn’t come out of thin air. It came out of basic research on neural plasticity that we have done in our lab for many decades,” she says. Neural plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to shape and reshape itself over a lifetime.

“We’ve studied neural plasticity by looking at deaf people, blind people, children with language impairments, bilinguals, and typical people,” Neville says. “We’ve found that some systems of the brain don’t show much neural plasticity. Some show a lot but only in a specific time period. So we targeted this second kind of system, focusing on selective attention of the developing brain.”

Tune out the chaos

Children from lower socioeconomic status (SES) often have more problems with attention skills than do children from higher SES backgrounds, because, on average, they have more difficulty suppressing, or ignoring, non-attended information, Neville says. Such difficulties likely arise as children in lower SES families grow up amid chaos and unpredictable environments, she added.

Researchers developed learning exercises, including games, appropriate for kids ages 3-5 that require clear focus from the children.

Parents or other primary caregivers attended weekly two-hour sessions in which they learned standard parenting practices that build strong relationships and about the value of the attention skills their children were receiving.

Much of the discussion centered on reducing negative components of parenting and fostering a positive atmosphere, such as providing guided choices for children, establishing expectations and praising good behaviors, says Scott Klein, a research assistant in the Brain Development Lab. Training was reinforced with weekly phone calls to the parents to help address specific problems.

“We try to have all activities done with children embedded with the parents all of the time,” Klein says. “We are building a systematic change one step at a time. We start small. Each step scaffolds on each other.”

‘We saw changes quickly’

The parenting component is based on work done by the Eugene-based Oregon Social Learning Center, a nonprofit, collaborative research center. “In our observations, we saw changes quickly, often in a week,” says co-author Eric Pakulak.  “Parents begin to see results that they like—benefiting the children and themselves.”

For the study, a control group of children and parents engaged only in traditional Head Start programming. A second experimental group included the children’s learning exercises but less parental involvement.

“The more parent-focused program was the clear winner,” Neville says. The children showed significant improvements in their ability to focus—gains that are holding up over time, based on subsequent preliminary data from ongoing brain-monitoring assessments, she adds.

The children’s selective attention abilities, as seen in event-related brain potentials (ERP), were measured before and after the intervention using non-invasive electroencephalography, which records electrical activity along the scalp.

The children also were evaluated for changes in cognitive abilities with standardized assessments of non-verbal IQ and language skills, both of which rose significantly in children whose parents received training.

In families where both the children and caregivers received the interventions, children were more likely to perform similarly to children from higher SES backgrounds, and caregivers reported significant reductions of stress in the home, particularly in dealing with their children.

“Chronic stress is literally toxic to the developing brain,” Pakulak says. “The same parts of the brain that are important for learning in early development are the same parts of the brain that help moderate the stress response.”

Many parents, Klein says, reported feeling as if portions of their personal lives had been restored, opening time for reading and outside activities.

Back in the classroom, improvements were visible. “With the children having changes at home that help their attention—this is a multiplier. It helps in learning in the classroom, playing games and sports. It helps kids focus. It is rewarding for the kids and for the parents. With less stress, the children are better able to focus their attention.”

The research, supported by the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and the National Institute’s of Health National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, will continue to track the participating children as they move through their school years.

Source: University of Oregon