Catch Them from the Cradle: Earliest Interventions

Based on the tremendous influence of early childhood on later reading and academic success, it makes good sense to give children preventive early intervention if they appear headed for later reading problems or school failure. That is why federal and state governments give major funding to preschool programs nationwide. Unfortunately, researchers have often found disappointing results: education gains made in many preschool programs tend to dissipate as the children move through their elementary school years.

Many preschool programs are not as intensive as they could be. Children typically don’t begin until age four, and then with only a half-day program. Other early childhood interventions have proven more successful by enrolling children earlier and providing more comprehensive services and curricula.

In one impressive program studied by researchers, children began attending in infancy (typically about four months old) and received a wide array of well-coordinated education, medical, and family outreach services. The caregiver-to-child ratio was one-to-three, and so babies received a lot of direct individual attention from well-trained day care workers at the center. The center operated full days, year round. Daily activities for babies focused on cognitive and fine motor skills, social and self-help skills, language skills, and gross motor skills.

By the time children reached preschool level, the child-adult ratio gradually increased to one adult for every six children. Like any high-quality preschool, classrooms were equipped with centers for art, housekeeping, blocks, fine motor manipulatives, language, and literacy. In addition, caregivers and teachers were trained in language and literacy development. At age four, some children received training in phonological awareness in a 10-minute session, twice a week.

To help children make a successful transition into kindergarten, the program included a six-week summer transitional classroom experience in a large, socioeconomically mixed group similar to what they would encounter in public school.

The program also arranged for medical care on site at the child care center. Families received home visits for the purpose of parent education on child health and development, as well as parenting issues. Parents served on the center’s advisory board and were invited to a series of educational workshops. Social events also brought families to the center.

Not surprisingly, the children’s development was enhanced. From ages 18 to 54 months, they scored significantly higher on measures of intellectual development than the control group. At age five, they had higher IQs and better language skills. But what is most notable is that the positive impact was lasting. During a series of follow-up studies when children reached ages 8, 12, and 15, they were still outperforming the control groups on achievement tests. Significantly, fewer children had been held back a grade or placed in special education.

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