, Research Paper
A New Start on Head Start One of the many debated topics in the field of psychology is the concept of critical period in child development. It is often stated that the first years of an infant s life are the most impressionable. Therefore, it is important to properly expose our children to a healthy, nurturing environment so that they will become intelligent, stable human beings in the future. Parents will sometimes even go as far as to expose their child to almost every sport and recreation that is humanly possible in hopes to create the next child prodigy. Nevertheless, this idea of early intervention is a valid one. Taking on a nurture perspective, what a child is exposed to early on in his or her life can greatly influence his or her social and cognitive development in the future. This is what President Johnson had in mind in 1964 when he created a nationally invested program for the underprivileged youth of America, Head Start. Created as part of Johnson s war on poverty , Head Start is a form of preschool that provides an early boost for impoverished children in hopes to put them on the same social and cognitive level as privileged children. However, despite initial positive findings, new tests show that the results of this program vary and tend to not be maintained. These findings call for a revised policy and program that should be created for our youth. Measures need to be taken to reconstruct the Head Start program so that the positive effects on the children s cognitive and social development persist rather than desist. The purpose of Program Head Start is to intervene in the cycle of poverty at a crucial time in children s lives by providing them with important learning experiences that they might otherwise miss. Unlike in ordinary preschools, Head Start provides a broader range of services for underprivileged families. Their goals include providing education as well as health, nutrition, and services to parents. Many parents find jobs at Head Start Programs and serve as teacher s aids and staff members. As a result, parents are able to participate in their child s education and development while maintaining a job. However, the realities of Head Start are not all so bright. Every three- or four- year old in the U.S. whose family lives below the poverty level is eligible to attend a Head Start program. Sadly, though, only 40% (approximately 800,00) are able to attend due to lack of federal funding. However, the government can not be justly accused of not putting any effort to assist its project. The Head Start Budget has jumped from $96 million in 1965 to an estimated $4 billion in 1996 (Creating a 21st Century Head Start, 1993). Thirty-seven percent of Head Start children are African American, 33% are Caucasian, 23% are Hispanic and 3% are Asian. The families of Head Start generally have incomes less that $12,000 per year. Approximately 57% of Head Start programs offer classes five days a week four to eight hours a day. More than 40,000 Head Start classrooms in America are administered by approximately 1,400 grantees with nearly 140,000 staff at a cost of about $4,300 per child per year (Frankel, 1997). Despite these high figures and investments there is still heated controversy on whether the Head Start program actually produces long-term benefits in the children s development. From the time of its first emergence to recent years, numerous studies, varying in design and quality, have been performed that test effects of the program. Cognitive results are usually examined through grade retention and IQ and achievement tests while socialization is normally determined through behavior such as aggression, delinquency, and classroom etiquette. Early studies showed promising results on cognitive and social development among Head Start children. However, a closer look at studies reveals that many of these studies were taken in the immediate years after enrollment and did not assess long-term results. In addition, these early studies were often restricted to small geographic regions and specific racial groups. More recent studies have reached new contrasting findings. The Head Start Evaluation, Synthesis, and Utilization Project (McKey et al.,1985) found that immediate positive cognitive effects were present after Head Start, but these differences between Head Start children and the control group were quickly diminished by the first grade. On the other hand, Mckey et al. discovered through national surveys that socially relevant educational outcomes tended to endure more than cognitive aspects. Head Start students were more likely to complete high school and less likely to go through grade retention or be placed in special education classes. This social competence allowed them to progress in school, stay in the mainstream, and satisfy teachers requirements better than their peers who did not attend. In addition, Haskins (1989) found in his survey that Head Start children tended to have fewer teenage pregnancies, to be less involved with delinquency, to graduate from high school at a higher rate, and were less likely to be on welfare. These findings confirm that Head Start programs do play a part in the healthy social development of children. Another important issue is the fact that Head Start effects are different among Caucasians and African Americans. In a study done by Currie and Thomas (1995) results showed that there were significant increases in tests scores among whites and African Americans, but these increases were quickly lost with African Americans. Furthermore, the study shows that Head Start has no effect on grade repetition for African Americans while it has positive effects for Caucasians. Therefore, cognitive effects of Head Start appear to very dramatically by race.The fact that there are such extreme differences between the two races calls for further questioning. What role does race play in the outcomes of Head Start? One theory is that Blacks are served with less competent Head Start programs that whites. While most programs are up to standards, slightly over 11% of Head Start programs inspected in 1993 were found to be out of compliance with 50 or more of 222 items reviewed, while another 18% needed improvement in 26-50 areas (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1993). Another theory is that the environment the Head Start children are surrounded with influences their drop in development. The large majorities of African American Head Start graduates come from broken, single-parent homes, poorer communities, and attend deficient public schools. Consequently, it is likely that the harsh realities and environment of these children cause the loss of gains from Head Start schools. Looking at all the complication and faults of Head Start, perhaps the more pertinent question that needs to be asked is: How do we go about solving these deficiencies? The program of Head Start is obsolete if the desired effects deteriorate with most of its subjects. One solution is to rebuild the structure within. It is odd how Head Start resembles social work quite dramatically in its application and goals, yet there are few social workers that operate in Head Start programs. Because Head Start programs pay little for administrative positions and advocate parent interaction and employment, professional social workers are rarely in the picture. As a result, family service workers, who hold the job of program coordinators with no real training, head many of the Head Start centers. Adding trained social workers to Head Start staffs, however, would be of great benefit to the program. By creating higher pay and encouraging the employment of service workers, the experience and schooling of social workers could help enhance overall programs and development for the children. For example, social workers would understand the importance of creating an authoritative, rather than authoritarian, environment. Parents who live in poverty tend to use authoritarian, controlling, child-rearing practices to raise their children. The stress in their lives cause them to use techniques of physical punishment instead of communication to teach and raise their offspring. However, these practices produce negative outcomes. Children of authoritarian parents tend to become aggressive and lack independence and initiative because they were never taught to understand why their actions were wrong and how to think on their own. Since family members are the ones to administer Head Start programs, the children would experience authoritarian care at both school and home. This reality would only further the decrease in the success of Head Start as well as social and cognitive development. Children of authoritarian care tend to become socially inept and dependent. Assigning trained social workers, however, would strengthen the type of care and environment in Head Start programs. They would bring on a more authoritative-type guardianship. Children of authoritarian care tend to be more satisfied, self- reliant, self-controlled, and are not afraid to explore new territories. As a result, they would have better chances at succeeding with school, friends, and life, in general.
Another internal solution to solving Head Start problems is to minimize the staff to student ratio. An average of one teacher is assigned for every twenty students. By decreasing the ratio, children would get more academic and personal attention to socially and mentally develop. A decrease in the group of students will result in an increase in the quality of care and development. Smaller classrooms allow more individual contact and interaction between children and adults. Smaller teacher to student ratios will also enhance another important developmental factor: attachment. In a class of twenty students it is hard to form personal attachments with elders. In addition, many Head Start children come from families that can not provide them with close attention and care. As a result, many impoverished children are not able to make critical attachments with their caregivers. Secure attachments lead to social abilities, friendships, independence, and self-confidence. They serve as an internal working model for future relationships. Consequently, children who grow up with a negative, detached internal working model become socially isolated and deficient. Therefore, a reduction in number between Head Start students and teachers would allow the children to properly form attachments to enhance future development. In addition to these internal revisions, external solutions and policies need to be carried out to improve Head Start. A major factor in the decrease of cognitive and social advance in Head Start is the environment that the children come into after the program has terminated. Year after year, they are faced with a dangerous, prominent environment that overshadows the one or two years that they spent in Head Start. Consequently, although Head Start is a good concept, it is not enough to really change these underprivileged children s lives. The government needs to provide continual, not periodic guidance for them. Centers for children of all ages need to be created in order for the effects of Head Start to last. A few years for a few hours a day can not make the difference. In addition, much of the children s cognitive and mental education is limited by their early age. According to Piaget, children during early childhood are only at a preoperational stage. They have cognitive limitations that do not allow them do perform abilities such as taking a perspective of another and reason about cause and effect. Therefore, much of what they learn does not stay. However, during middle childhood at about the age of seven, children enter the concrete operational stage. Their cognitive abilities are enhanced and they are now able to grasp concepts such as conservation, the understanding that the appearance of objects may change while their quantity or some other essential feature remains the same. The children have an increase in their mental capacities, knowledge base, and memory strategies. Thus by extending the Head Start schooling, children would benefit more because they are given the opportunity to continue in the program, stay out of an unsafe environment, and better grasp the influential lessons they are learning. There is no doubt that the nation s drive to help underprivileged children is present in the hearts of many. However, instead of closing our eyes and looking for an easy solution to a serious problem, we need to refocus on our goal and head towards it. Policies and programs need to be constantly reestablished and upgraded to fit the current findings and realities. It is true that impoverished children need the extra head start on life and proper development, but as studies show, they need a little more than just a start most of the time. Humans are the most complex beings on earth; one can never solve a complex problem with a simple solution. Because of the ever-changing environment that surrounds us, something as delicate as a child can unexpectedly transform before our very eyes if left alone. It is important to understand that with a serious subject such as child development, critical periods are not only critical, but also continual. As a result, rather than creating a little push towards prosperity, we must realize that we need to take our youth by the hand and guide them towards a better life. ReferencesBarnett, Steven. (1995). Long Term Effects of Early Childhood Programs on Cognitive and School Outcomes. The Future of Children. 5, (pages unknown internet: http://www.futureofchildren.org/lto/02_lto.htm)Cole, Michael & Cole Sheila. (1996). The Development of Children (3rd ed.). New York: W.H.Freeman and Company, 462 Creating a 21st Century Head Start- Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Head Start Quality and Expansion. (1993). Washington DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, administration for Children, Youth, and Families. Currie, J., & Thomas, D., (1995). Does Head Start make a Difference? American Economic Review. 85, 341-365. Frankel, Arthur J. (1997). Head Start and Social Work . Families in Society. 78. 172-195.Lee, Valerie E. (1990) Are Head Start Effects Sustained? A longitudinal follow-up comparison of disadvantaged children attending Head Start, no preschool, and other preschool programs. Child Development. 61, 495- 508.Mckey, R.H., Condelli, L., Granson, H., Barrett, B., McConkey, C., & Plantz, M. (1985, June) The impact of Head Start on children, families, and communities (final report of the Head Start Evaluation, Synthesis, and Utilization Project). Washington DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, III-21. Shalala calls for refocusing, re-energizing the Head Start Program. (1993). Children Today. 22, 4-10. Stanfield, Rochelle L. (1995). A Head Start, Sure, but for how Long? National Journal. 27, 2107-2108 .