High-quality early childhood education has the greatest positive effect on children from lower socioeconomic status, children who are at risk because of other circumstances, 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 (Begley, 2000).
One of the most significant findings to emerge from research on dropouts is that early identification is vital to effective prevention. Although we tend to think of students dropping out during their last years of high school, many are lost long before that. 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.
The earlier a problem is identified and addressed, the greater will be the impact on students in at-risk situations. Over 20 years of research has determined that high-quality early childhood education is:
Head Start has been the source of more than 30 years of research. Two of the best known studies are the Perry Preschool Study (Barnett, 1995) and the Consortium of Longitudinal Studies (Lazar, Darlington, Murray, Royce & Snipper, 1982). 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). The most effective way to reduce the number of children who will ultimately drop out is to provide the best possible classroom instruction from the beginning of their school experience. Studies of birth-to-three interventions demonstrate that both child-centered and family-centered strategies often can make a lasting difference. These prevention strategies place infants and toddlers in stimulating, developmentally appropriate environments for part of each day. Family members are trained and given materials to help them stimulate their children's cognitive development, handle discipline and health problems, and develop vocational and home management skills.
Special education referrals and retention in grade are decreased by such 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 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. 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 & Weikart (1985) found that early intervention for young at-risk children decreased the dropout and juvenile delinquency rate.
Research has revealed that effective early schooling experiences include preventive health and nutrition components and involve parents as their children's first teachers. Children with prekindergarten experience through programs such as Head Start had parents who were more involved in their children's school activities. Because of this influence on parental involvement, prekindergarten experience appears to have an indirect, positive effect on first grade academic achievement and on children's social adjustment. In studies with matched control groups, more students who had early schooling experiences were employed at age 19, fewer were on welfare, and fewer were involved with the criminal justice system.
In 1988, the Arizona Legislature initiated the Arizona At-Risk Pilot Project. This was a longitudinal evaluation study of 55 district- and school-based programs for students at risk of academic failure. The study's focus was to identify what works for targeted at-risk students. The portion of the study investigating the 42 programs implemented at the K-3 level found that reduced student/staff ratios, full-day kindergartens, and tutorial programs consistently appeared to be effective. The study found a steady decrease in the number of children retained in the pilot sites, an increase in attendance, and gains in language and reading scores.
Best practices in early childhood education are identified as Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP). DAP is age, individually, and culturally appropriate. The most important component is a caring classroom. 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). Children who participate in these programs build confidence, competence and skills (Wishon, Huang, & Needham, 1987). Research demonstrates that early childhood education is definitely a good investment.
Barnett, W. S. (1995, Fall/Winter). Long-term effects of early childhood programs on cognitive and school outcomes. The future of children: Long-term outcomes of early childhood programs, 5(3), 25-50.
Begley, S. (2000). Wired for thought. Newsweek, Fall/Winter 2000, 25-30.
Lazar, I, Darlington, R., Murray, H., Royce, J., & Snipper, A. (1982). Lasting effects of early education: A report from the consortium for longitudinal studies. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 47 (Serial No. 195).
Schweinhart, L. J., & Widart, D. P. (1985). Evidence that good early childhood programs work. Phi Delta Kappan, 66, 8.
Stegelin, D. (2004). Early childhood education. In F. P. Schargel & J. Smink (Eds.) Helping students graduate: A strategic approach to dropout prevention (pp. 115-123.). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.
Wishon, P., Huang, A., & Needham, R. (1987). School discontinuance prevention through early intervention, Dimensions, 15(2), 22-23.