Last month, the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University released their report on the Chicago School Readiness Project (CSRP), a preschool program for children living in high-poverty and high-crime neighborhoods in inner city Chicago.
Begun in 2003, the CSRP is based on research that suggested “children’s early educational experiences could be substantially improved by targeting teacher’s behavioral management strategies, and improvements to teacher behavioral management [in turn] should help improve children’s own self-regulation abilities.” Thus, the CSRP aims to provide teacher-level interventions that will help them develop the children’s long-term self-regulation and executive function skills; this in turn will help the students become more focused and achieve higher levels of academic success in both the short and longer term.
The study team explains:
The CSRP targeted children’s self-regulation skills by providing teachers with extensive professional development designed to help them improve their classroom behavioral management. Self-regulation describes a child’s ability to focus and maintain attention, regulate behavior in order to positively interact with peers and adults, and regulate emotion in the face of stress and anxiety. Executive function (EF) is considered to be the cognitive component of self-regulation, and EF involves activation of the sub-areas of the prefrontal cortex. When faced with stress and adversity, children with higher-level executive functioning are better able to plan ahead, maintain focus, and rely on cognitive flexibility to solve difficult problems. Not surprisingly, these skills are essential for early school success, as self-regulation supports the acquisition of new information by allowing children to focus and sustain their attention as well as to suppress impulsive responses in favor of better academic engagement. Longitudinal work has also shown that self-regulation skills help students transition into college, and children who self-regulate have lower rates of criminal behavior and better health outcomes as adults.
The project sponsors directed their intervention to Head Start classrooms in Chicago because of Head Start’s large role in providing early childhood education to low-income children who are at greater risk of not developing self-regulation and EF skills because of poverty-related stressors. Working in Head Start also allowed the CSRP to directly assist teachers who might be at greater risk of burn-out themselves than their colleagues in less disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Evaluations of the CSRP published between 2008 and 2011 showed that the program was meeting its goals. However, studies of preschool outcomes in other contexts have documented a “fade-out effect” of students’ gains by the third grade. “Unfortunately, most of these studies have not continued to follow-up with participants past elementary school,” said lead author and Research Assistant Professor, Tyler Watts in a discussion with the sciencedaily.com website. The Steinhardt study therefore followed up on these evaluations by examining program effects on students who had enrolled in the CSRP ten years earlier.
Professor Watts and his team examined a variety of indicators related to adolescent self-regulation, executive function, and academic achievement. After adjusting for differences in student demographics and baseline skills, they found small but statistically positive gains on measures of adolescent executive functioning and academic achievement, as well as a greater sensitivity to negative emotional stimuli.
The results suggest two key areas for review. First, it would appear that the fade-out effect is not an inevitable part of the post-preschool experience. Second, the CSRP model shows there are ways to improve the delivery of Head Start itself which would improve the outcomes for all participants. As Watts notes, “Although we did not find large impacts on all of the outcomes assessed, the positive results for executive function and academic achievement were certainly encouraging. … We think these results suggest that high-quality programs can produce important effects on key long-term outcomes.”