Posted: March 16, 2017

The effectiveness of Head Start in preparing children for elementary school is currently being debated, but in Pennsylvania, the program has benefited from several Penn State initiatives.

When children begin kindergarten, they are faced with a new set of demands and expectations ­-- for both behavior and learning. For children who are struggling in these areas, quality early intervention programs are crucial.

One early intervention program, Head Start, is a federally-funded program that began in the 1960s as a program for low-income families. The effectiveness of Head Start in preparing children for elementary school is currently being debated, but in Pennsylvania, the program has benefited from several Penn State initiatives.

Head Start REDI (research-based, developmentally informed), began in 2002 as a prevention trial, headed by Karen Bierman, Evan Pugh Professor of Psychology and Human Development and Family Studies and director of the Child Study Center.

Funded by Eunice Kennedy National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) grants, Head Start REDI is delivered by teachers and integrated into their classrooms. "The REDI program includes curriculum-based lessons, center-based extension activities and professional development for teachers designed to enhance the impact of Head Start on child school readiness," said Bierman. "The program develops both language and literacy skills, as well as social-emotional skills."

Research shows the REDI program has been very successful in its synergy -- Bierman and her team have documented several improvements in teaching quality in REDI classrooms, including enhanced teacher language use, instructional support, and emotion coaching. "Children who received REDI showed improved outcomes on measures of vocabulary, emergent literacy skills, social competence and learning engagement, and reduced aggression at the end of the Head Start year. More importantly, sustained benefits were documented into kindergarten and through third grade," Bierman reported.

Several years after the launch of the REDI program, Bierman and her team added a parent component, which includes take-home materials and trainings for parents. The program, REDI-P, reaches out to parents and other family members, working in partnership with community teams that include school district and other community agency representatives.

"REDI-P emphasizes the importance of positive support, emotion coaching, and interactive reading through increased parental support," Bierman explained. "We provide parents with information about what they can do to help, and we give them a whole set of learning activities they can use at home to support school-readiness skills. Parental support makes a big difference for children who need early interventions." Adding the parent program extended the scope of sustained benefits evident in early elementary school beyond those seen with the classroom program alone.

Currently, Bierman and her team are conducting follow-up assessments with children who participated in the REDI trials to evaluate long-term effects of the REDI program on children in middle school and high school. "We're looking to see if improved social-emotional function and self-regulation skills taught in the REDI program impact academic achievement and limit risky behaviors later on in adolescence," Bierman said.

The team is also conducting assessments for children who were in REDI-P. "We're evaluating whether or not there is a boost beyond what the Head Start program provides, and to see if the results are lasting or fade over time," said Bierman. "From what we've seen so far, if children receive high-quality early learning, the benefits are sustainable."

In another related NICHD-funded project, Bierman and her team are partnering with Penn State Cooperative Extension's Better Kid Care (BKC) program to integrate REDI into BKC's curriculum and professional trainings. BKC provides evidence-informed professional development to early education and youth development professionals to improve the quality of their care and educational practices.

"By partnering with BKC, we can utilize their online tools for professional trainings and train educators and childcare center directors to coach their staff in high-quality program implementation. It's taking the REDI program and making it more affordable for schools and childcare centers to implement," Bierman explained.

In the years to come, Bierman and her team will evaluate the effectiveness of the BKC platform in delivering the REDI program. "We hope that the new program will have the same early intervention benefits as REDI, but at a much smaller cost. Effective early learning programs are so important. Without them we are missing five to six years of a child's learning potential, creating very large gaps in learning that never really close."

The REDI programs are collaborative efforts supported by Penn State's Child Study Center (College of the Liberal Arts), the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development (College of Health and Human Development), the Better Kid Care Program (College of Agricultural Sciences), and Head Start and child care programs in eight counties in Pennsylvania.

Core collaborators include Celene Domitrovich, assistant director of the Prevention Research Center; Scott Gest, professor of human development and family studies; Julia Gest, early learning specialist, Penn State Extension; Sukhdeep Gill, associate professor of human development and family studies; Mark Greenberg, Edna Peterson Bennett Endowed Chair in Prevention Research and professor of human development and psychology; Brenda Heinrichs, statistician, Child Study Center; Claudia Mincemoyer, director, Better Kid Care Program; Robert Nix, research associate, Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development; and Janet Welsh, research assistant professor of health and human development, Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development.

Seed funding for REDI was provided by Penn State's Social Science Research Foundation.