Gains in Language and Cognitive Scores Among Children in Their First and Second Years of Head Start

Publication Date: June 1, 2021
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  • Published: 2021

Introduction

Research Questions

  1. Do first- and second-year children have different background characteristics? If so, do these characteristics explain the difference in gains between first- and second-year children?
  2. Do first- and second-year children’s language and cognitive scores differ at the start of the program year? If so, do fall language and cognitive scores explain the difference in gains between first- and second-year children?
  3. Do first- and second-year children’s classroom experiences differ? If so, does part-day enrollment, classroom quality, or teacher education or experience, explain the difference in gains between first- and second-year children?

This research brief describes the gains children made across a year of Head Start for children returning for their second year of Head Start (second-year children) and children entering their first year (first-year children), using nationally representative data from the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey 2014-2018 (FACES 2014). Although children in both years made significant gains in language and cognitive scores during Head Start, second-year children showed smaller gains from fall to spring of the program year than first-year children (Kopack Klein et al. 2018). In this brief, we explore possible explanations for why second-year children made smaller language and cognitive gains than first-year children during the Head Start program year.

 

Appendix: 

Gains in Language and Cognitive Scores Among Children in Their First and Second Years of Head Start: Technical Report

Purpose

The purpose of this brief is to explore possible explanations for why second-year children made smaller gains in language and cognitive scores than first-year children during the Head Start program year. We explore whether differences between first- and second-year children’s language and cognitive gains across the program year can be explained by differences in child and family characteristics, including age; fall language and cognitive scores; part-day enrollment; classroom quality; or teacher experience or education. In other words, we explore whether second-year children made smaller gains than first-year children because they had different characteristics or experiences that are associated with smaller gains.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Second-year children made smaller gains in expressive vocabulary, letter-word knowledge, early writing, and early math than first-year children, although they made similar gains in receptive vocabulary.
  • We found some different patterns for different language and cognitive assessments:
    • Child age explained second-year children’s smaller gains in early writing and early math, such that first- and second-year children made similar gains after including age in the analyses.
    • For letter-word knowledge, second-year children’s higher fall scores explained some, but not all, of their smaller gains.
    • Even after accounting for child and family background characteristics, children’s scores at the beginning of the program year, and children’s classroom and teacher characteristics, second-year children made smaller gains in letter-word knowledge and expressive vocabulary (see figure).

Differences in gains from fall to spring between first- and second-year children, accounting for child and family background characteristics and fall language and cognitive scores

  • Family background characteristics and characteristics of children’s classrooms and teachers did not account for the smaller gains made by second-year children.
  • Taken together, our findings suggest one of two possibilities. Unlike second-year children, first-year children experience a novel setting with new staff, new peers, and a fresh exposure to a curriculum, which may result in an initial boost in skills. The leveling off in the second year might be a developmental phenomenon as children adjust to the environment. A second possibility is that second-year children, who are older and have higher entering scores, would benefit from novel, individualized, higher-level content that extends the experiences of the prior year, to continue to make gains at the same rate.

Methods

FACES provides information at the national level about Head Start programs, centers, and classrooms, and the children and families they serve, with two centers per program and two classrooms per center. Within each classroom, we randomly selected 12 children for the study. In total,176 programs, 346 centers, 667 classrooms, and 2,206 children (in 60 programs) were study participants in spring 2015. The sample used for this brief included 1,921 children who were enrolled in Head Start in fall 2014 and were still enrolled in spring 2015.

We first examined differences between first- and second-year children on child and family background characteristics, fall language and cognitive scores, part-day enrollment, classroom quality, and teacher experience and education. We then conducted a series of regression models predicting gains in language and cognitive scores based on whether children were first- or second-year children. We added sets of variables in a stepwise fashion, with each model including the variables from the prior models. We wanted to determine whether accounting for these characteristics would explain why second-year children made smaller gains than first-year children. The five sets of variables included:

  • Months between fall and spring direct assessments
  • Child’s age in months at the spring direct assessment
  • Other child and family background characteristics (race/ethnicity, sex, the language that was always or usually spoken to the child at home, who lived in the household, parent education, parent employment, and household poverty threshold)
  • Fall scores on the assessment of language and cognitive skill
  • Teacher years of experience

Citations

Brief

Harding, J.F., P. Gleason, N. Aikens, L. Malone, L. Tarullo, J. Cannon, and K. Cronquist. “Gains in Language and Cognitive Scores Among Children in Their First and Second Years of Head Start.” OPRE Report 2021-42. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, 2021.

Appendix

Gleason, P., J.F. Harding, J. Cannon, K. Cronquist, N. Aikens, L. Malone, and L. Tarullo. “Gains in Language and Cognitive Scores Among Children in Their First and Second Years of Head Start: Technical Report.” OPRE Report 2021-41. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, 2021

Glossary

FACES:
Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey