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Quality preschool benefits poor and affluent kids, study finds

Quality prekindergarten programs can boost children’s school skills whether the kids come from poor or well-off homes, a new study shows.

While most previous studies had focused only on kids from underprivileged backgrounds, in the new study Harvard researchers found that regardless of family income children who got a year of quality prekindergarten did better in reading and math than kids who spent the year in daycare, with relatives, or in some other kind of preschool, according to the report which was published in Child Development. 

As a further benefit, the kids who spent a year in preschool developed better “executive functioning.”

That means is that they had developed the skills needed to take advantage of what is being taught in school, said the report’s lead author Christina Weiland, a researcher at Harvard when the study was done and currently an incoming assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

“For example, they’ve learned that they need to raise their hands before yelling out an answer,” she explained. “They’ve gotten better at keeping numbers in their heads when doing a math problem and remembering the teacher’s instructions. They’ve gotten better at shifting their attention from a distracting peer to what the teacher is saying.”

Those kinds of self-regulatory behaviors are highly predictive of how well you do later in life, Weiland said. 

There were some kids who benefited more than others from prekindergarten: Latino children, and to a lesser extent, Asian and African American children.

Weiland was able to study the impact of preschool in a sort of “natural” experiment. In Boston, kids qualify for a free, full-day preschool program during the school year if they turn 4  by Sept. 1.

Children born after that date must wait a year before they are eligible.

For the study, Weiland tested 969 kids who'd finished a full school year of preschool in 2008-2009 and compared them 1,049 kids who weren't quite old enough to have made the previous year's cutoff and so were just starting preschool. (Many of them had spent that year in daycare and being cared for by relatives or in other preschool programs.)

Experts unaffiliated with the new research welcomed the new report.

“I think this is a very important study since the effects weren’t just in children at a lower economic level,” said Patrick Tolan, a professor in the Curry School of Education and director of the Youth-Nex Center at the University of Virginia. “Just as important, though, is the implication that the boost in skills may very much depend on having high quality staff and using programs that have been empirically tested.”

Matia Finn-Stevenson, a research scientist and associate director of the Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy and director of the School of the 21st Century at Yale University, agreed that the quality of the program is all important.

“In this study the children were in a high-quality educational environment with teachers with masters degrees, teachers receiving coaching, etc.,” she said. “I know parents who are not satisfied with their PreK and they have told me they simply have to look the other way and not make waves because they have no alternatives.”

How can parents figure out whether their PreK program is good?

Finn-Stevenson suggests that “parents should look for a place that allows parents to come in at any time to see the PreK in action. Look for staff continuity – how long have they been at the school/program? How often and in what ways do they interact with the children? What is the overall atmosphere? How are the children interacting?”

One thing that’s unclear at this point is whether the gains in PreK will carry over into later years. That’s a topic that still needs to be researched, Tolan said.