Birth-to-five interventions demonstrate that providing enriching activities and enriching environments in early childhood can enhance brain development. Providing the best possible classroom environment from the early childhood years throughout the primary and secondary years is one of the most effective way schools can reduce the number of children who will ultimately drop out.
High-quality early childhood education has the greatest positive effect on children from lower socioeconomic status and children who are at risk because of family or community circumstances such as poverty and abuse/neglect, and children with disabilities and special needs (Stegelin, 2004). Recent brain research has verified the importance of cognitive and social development in the early years (Cartwright, 2012). Just as the experiences of early childhood make the brain vulnerable to toxic early environments, quality experiences provide tremendous opportunity for positive brain development (“Brain Architecture,” n.d.).
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Early Childhood Education Is Needed
One of the most significant findings to emerge from research on dropouts is that early risk identification is vital to effective prevention. Although we tend to think of students dropping out during their last years of high school, many have that trajectory set long before that. Jimerson, Reschly, and Hess (2008) concluded that school dropout is better understood as a process of disengagement from school rather than a sudden event. Social- and task-related behavioral problems that develop into school adjustment problems can be identified at the beginning of the elementary grades. The dropout problem is not one that can be addressed exclusively at the middle or high school levels; by then it is too late for some students.
What Is Early Childhood Education?
The earlier a problem is identified and addressed, the greater will be the impact on students in at-risk situations. Building on decades of research, we know that high-quality early childhood education is:
- Exploratory; and
- Integrates interactive learning across the curriculum (Stegelin, 2004).
Head Start has been the source of more than 30 years of research. One of the best known studies is the Perry Preschool Study (Barnett, 1995). The Perry study found that “…one dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education programs by policymakers results in a return of seven dollars in preventative costs associated with incarceration, truancy, school dropout, and teen pregnancy” (Stegelin, 2004). Further, results from the Perry Preschool Study showed that the group of students who were enrolled in the program had higher income, owned a car, and had significantly fewer arrests by ages 27 and 40 as compared to the group of students who were not enrolled in the Head Start program (Schweinhart et al., 2005).
The most effective way to reduce the number of children who will ultimately drop out of school is to provide the best possible learning environments from the beginning. Studies of birth-to-three interventions demonstrate that both child-centered and family-centered strategies often can make a lasting difference. Stimulating, developmentally appropriate environments are important for infants and toddlers. Given that factors both in school (i.e., behavior and academic performance) and out of school (i.e., community factors, engagement in deviant behaviors) can impact student dropout (Rumberger & Rotermund, 2012), it is imperative to involve family members early in a child’s education. For example, impactful Early Head Start and Head Start (EHS/HS) programs effectively provide family members with support, training, and materials to help them stimulate their children’s cognitive development, handle discipline and health problems, and develop vocational and home management skills (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, 2010).
Special education referrals and retention in grade are decreased by early prevention strategies. It appears to take intensive efforts over a period of several years to produce lasting effects, but the fact that even the least intensive models of early intervention produce strong immediate effects suggests that a combination of approaches within a comprehensive preventive program will have great promise in increasing children’s cognitive functioning and reducing future dropout. Strategies that include birth-to-three, preschool, and kindergarten programs can ensure that children enter first grade with good language development, cognitive skills, and self-concepts regardless of their family background or personal characteristics. Schweinhart and Weikart (1985) found that early intervention for young at-risk children decreased the dropout and juvenile delinquency rate. Baker and Bishop (2015) suggested that some of the risk factors leading to extensive non-attendance of older students can begin in the elementary grades. Environmental factors such as fear of non-monitored areas of school (i.e., bathrooms, locker rooms), bullying references, and nervousness over strict teachers are seen throughout the literature (Baker & Bishop, 2015). In order to reduce the likelihood of students considering dropping out, being part of the juvenile justice system, and having poor attendance in secondary grades, it is imperative that we address these risk factors as well, early on in the academic pipeline.
Impact of Early Childhood Education
Research has revealed that effective early schooling experiences include preventive health and nutrition components and involve parents as their children’s first teachers (Ripple, Gilliam, Chanana, & Zigler, 1999). Children with prekindergarten experience through programs such as Head Start had parents who were more involved in their children’s school activities (Marcon, 2000). Through its influence on parental involvement, the prekindergarten experience appears effect indirectly, but positively, first grade academic achievement and children’s social adjustment. In a longitudinal study of 180 children, the success of Head Start’s graduates was explained by exposure to both a developmentally appropriate intervention and to parental involvement (Marcon, 2000). Further evidence comes from a school district in southern Minnesota that implemented full-day kindergarten in an effort to focus on providing foundational supports, building students’ confidence, and paving the way for success before students began to fail (Raskin & Haar, 2009). One of the oldest and most replicated early intervention programs is the Chicago Child Parent Center program which targets students between preschool and grade 3 using language-based activities, outreach activities, ongoing staff development and health services. There is traditionally no set curriculum as the program is individualized to the needs of each child. Parental involvement and collaboration are critical components of this program. Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, and Mann (2001) report results of evaluations of the long-term effects of the intervention after 15 years of follow-up. Individuals who had participated in the early childhood intervention for at least one or two years had higher rates of school completion, had attained more years of education, and had lower rates of juvenile arrests, violent arrests leaving school early.
Key Elements of Successful Programs
Best practices in early childhood education are identified as Developmentally Appropriate Practices (DAP). DAP are age, individually, and culturally appropriate. Within early childhood, an important component is a caring classroom. The curriculum within the classroom helps young children achieve goals that are developmentally and educationally significant (National Association for the Education of Young Children; NAEYC, 2009). Findings from studies of high quality early childhood education experiences illustrate that such services for our youngest learners, infants and toddlers, have long-lasting and positive impacts on their development, learning abilities, and capacity to regulate their emotions (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; NICHD, 2003). Children who participate in high quality experiences and programs build confidence, competence, and self-regulatory skills that will influence their emotional competence and build their academic performance (Linares et al., 2005). Being immersed in environments that provide developmentally appropriate learning experiences, rich learning environments, and opportunities for social play have been shown to mitigate some of the effects of stress on young children’s brains (Francis, Dioro, Plotsky, & Meaney, 2002).
Early intervention effects include lower rates of retention, higher levels of academic achievement, fewer special education services, and a stronger commitment to graduating from high school (Stegelin, 2004). And research demonstrates that early childhood education is definitely a good investment as it is most often less expensive and more efficient to prevent or address problems early as opposed to mediating and recovering from often much more complex issues later (Stegelin, 2004).
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