One year of Head Start can make a bigger difference for children from homes where parents provide less early academic stimulation, such as reading to them, encouraging them to recognize and pronounce letters and words, and helping them count. Showing parents how they can assist their children with reading and counting may also be beneficial. Those are the conclusions of a new study by UC Irvine researchers that appears in the current issue of the journal Child Development.

Head Start is a comprehensive program that provides low-income children with preschool education; medical, dental and mental healthcare; and nutrition. It serves more than a million children a year. According to data from tests administered at the beginning and end of the Head Start year, the program was effective in the areas of early math, early literacy and receptive vocabulary for all children.

Those whose mothers said they provided low or moderate amounts of pre-academic stimulation scored lower in absolute terms in all three areas than children whose mothers said they provided extra pre-academic stimulation, but they gained more from being in Head Start than the other children.

“These results suggest that it’s particularly important that Head Start be offered to those children whose parents did not report providing a lot of pre-academic stimulation,” said Elizabeth B. Miller, a Ph.D. student in UC Irvine’s School of Education and the study’s lead author. “It’s vital that Head Start continue to serve children at the highest and moderate levels of risk because the program is particularly helpful to their development.”

The study also suggests that children’s academic achievement may be accelerated by programs that help parents boost pre-academic stimulation in the home.

“Working with parents to increase what they do at home may be an important way Head Start can improve children’s readiness for school,” Miller said. The study analyzed data from the Head Start Impact Study, a nationally representative sample of nearly 5,000 newly entering 3- and 4-year-olds. About a third of the children were African American, a third were Latino, and a third were white or of other races and ethnicities.

The study was co-authored by George Farkas, UC Irvine professor of education; Deborah Vandell, founding dean of the UC Irvine School of Education; and Greg Duncan, Distinguished Professor of education at UC Irvine. It was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.