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Study: Head Start Programs May Increase Parents' Involvement

By guest blogger Jackie Zubrzycki

Parents of children enrolled in Head Start programs spend more time reading, attending museums, and engaging in academic activities with their children, according to a December 2011 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Fathers who don't live with their children spend more time with children when the children have enrolled in Head Start, and continue to do so even after the children have left the program.

Researchers Alexander M. Gelber and Adam Isen, both of the University of Pennsylvania, looked at the 2010 Head Start Impact Study, or HSIS, which gathered information about children and parents from 84 "nationally representative" Head Start programs. They compared the level of parent involvement—defined as "activities that parents undertake that require time or effort and directly involve their children"— for children who were selected to attend Head Start and a control group that applied to but was not randomly selected for the program. Control group members may or may not have attended other preschool or daycare programs; a small group of them attended Head Start programs that were excluded from the experimental group.

The researchers find that while being enrolled in Head Start increases the number of hours a child spends in childcare away from parents, parents of these students actually spend more hours investing more deeply in their children and continue to do so after leaving Head Start.

The parent-child activities that increased most are those that the researchers deem "most likely to impact child human capital directly," such as reading, math, and tracking their child's development. Interestingly, the study notes that children enrolled in higher-performing Head Start programs experience a greater increase in parent involvement.

The researchers put out several hypotheses for the increase, ranging from the straightforward—Head Start encourages parents to volunteer and be engaged in children's development—to the more indirect—the free child care provided by Head Start might reduce parents' time and budget constraints. I was struck by the suggestion that the Head Start programs might make children "more pleasant to be with" and thus cause parents to want to spend more time with their children. The researchers also seem to like this explanation, saying that the data point to "parents' reaction to the impact of Head Start on child [cognitive and social] characteristics" causing the increase in parental engagement.

The report leaves open the question of whether and how this increase in parent involvement actually affects children. Previous studies of Head Start participants have found that Head Start's effect on test scores fades over time, but that Head Start participants experience a slew of other benefits, including positive impacts on mortality and future schooling. The authors suggest that the increased parental involvement could potentially explain some of those other positive impacts.

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