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  Last Updated on 07/13/2018

Brain Child: Early Head Start Gives Extra-early Boost to Toddlers

by Holly Yettick, Scripps Howard News Service, May 26, 2003

DENVER Amy Lee looks like she is watching her youngest son play. But really, she is watching him develop his mind. He is 2 years, 8 months old.

"He knows some of his letters and he can count up to 11 by himself," Lee said of Jack, who was bouncing around a playroom in time to a CD of French children's song.

"He knows his colors, though sometimes he pretends not to."

How did Jack learn so much, so young? Early Head Start.

The federal program is a younger sibling to Head Start, America's 38-year-old preschool fund for poor children, ages 3 through 5. Early Head Start was born during Head Start's 1994 reauthorization. It teaches the parents of infants to 3-year-olds how to be their children's first teachers.

"Early Head Start was a very important (response to) brain research," said Helen Blank, director of childcare for the Children's Defense Fund in Washington. " ... They're saying the first three years are critical."

It was not Head Start's first venture into early brain development. Low-income babies also have benefited from Parent and Child Centers and the Child and Family Resource Program launched in the 1960s and 1970s.

"A lot of brain research has been around for 25 years," said Edward Zigler, a Yale professor of psychology who served on Early Head Start's planning committee. "The stuff we've discovered with brain research is similar and consistent with all we've learned over the past 75 years in the social science and behavioral research."

Early Head Start began in 1996 with 143 programs. From the beginning, 17 programs were selected for intensive evaluations.

Research published last year showed that Early Head Start 3-year-olds had better language, cognitive and social skills than other low-income 3-year-olds. Early Head Start parents taught their children more at home and had fewer discipline problems. They were also slightly more likely to further their education and less likely to have more children during the program's first two years. The program worked especially well with blacks and with families who enrolled before their children were born.

Because the study only followed children to age 3, it's still unknown whether Early Head Start will have a lasting impact. A follow-up study of kindergartners is planned for next year.

Sharon Clark is a family-child educator at the center Lee attends Clayton Family Futures Early Head Start. This means she assists parents by visiting homes, planning activities such as library visits and observing the bright, cheerful daycare rooms on her agency's park-like campus.

Often, small suggestions make big differences.

Take the little girl who had great language skills, but was unable to name the foods she ate.

Clark realized it was because her mother, a busy working parent, served dinner to her kids without telling them what it was, then went off to take care of other business around the house.

After Clark suggested she sit down at the table and point out the names of chicken or peas, the child's vocabulary improved.

"It wasn't that mom was a bad mother," said Clark. "She wasn't aware."

Amy Lee says Early Head Start has made her much more aware.

For instance, she wanted Jack to learn to dress himself. So her parent-educator suggested that she start getting ready to go half an hour earlier so he would have enough time to finish. She also reads more with Jack than with her older son, who was born before Early Head Start.

The program aims to help both infants and mothers. Lee is a single, unemployed mother of two who has worked mostly as a hairstylist. At 31, she lives with her mother. But now, thanks to encouragement from Early Head Start, she is hoping to return to college.

"I'm nervous about it," she said, "but I'm looking forward to it. I'm so grateful for Early Head Start."



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