Panel Paper: Neighborhood Economic Disadvantage and Children's Academic, Socioemotional, and Behavioral Development: Exploring Head Start Quality As a Mediating Mechanism

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 8:40 AM
Mayfair Court (Westin Georgetown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Dana C. McCoy1, Maia C Connors2, Pamela Morris2, Hirokazu Yoshikawa1, Allison H. Friedman-Krauss2 and J. Lawrence Aber2, (1)Harvard University, (2)New York University
Recent empirical research has stressed the importance of improving early education quality to foster more positive outcomes for low-income children (e.g., Burchinal, Vandergrift, Pianta, & Mashburn, 2010; Britto, Yoshikawa, & Boller, 2011).  However, little is known about whether characteristics of the neighborhoods surrounding early education programs may also contribute to children’s development, or how classroom quality is related to these same community characteristics.  Using data from the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS), the present study explores the overall relationship between Head Start neighborhood economic disadvantage and changes in children’s academic, socioemotional, and behavioral outcomes over the course of their Head Start year.  This study also explores classroom structural and process quality as mediators of this relationship.  In doing so, this study contributes valuable information to the ongoing policy discussion of how to best support low-income children’s school readiness through improvements in early education quality.

Data for this study come from children in the treatment group of the HSIS, a nationally representative randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of Head Start (n=1929).  Three observed classroom quality variables – materials and space for learning, positive teacher interactions, and negative teacher interactions – were created using factor analyses of items from the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale and the Arnett Caregiver Interaction Scale.  Child outcomes include directly-assessed early verbal skills (Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test) and math skills (Woodcock Johnson III Applied Problems), and parent-reported approaches to learning and behavior problems (adapted Achenbach Classroom Behavior Checklist).  Finally, neighborhood disadvantage is represented by the percentage of households below the federal poverty line in each of the 327 Head Start centers’ census tracts.

Structural equation modeling was used to simultaneously test the three quality variables as mediators of the relationship between neighborhood disadvantage and all four child outcomes in spring of the Head Start year.  All analyses adjusted standard errors to account for children’s clustering in centers/neighborhoods, and controlled for child/family characteristics and fall pretest scores.  Results of preliminary models show that higher levels of neighborhood disadvantage significantly predict lower classroom quality across all three quality domains.  In addition, results reveal a direct negative relationship between neighborhood disadvantage and children’s academic (early verbal and math) skills. Finally, statistically significant tests of indirect and direct pathways suggest that classroom quality partially mediates the relationship between neighborhood disadvantage and socioemotional and behavioral outcomes, with materials/space playing a mediating role for children’s approaches to learning and negative interactions doing so for behavior problems.

These results suggest that classroom quality and neighborhood economic disadvantage play important but distinct roles in shaping young children’s development in Head Start.  Importantly, findings also reveal that Head Start quality varies significantly as a function of neighborhood economic disadvantage, and provide some evidence that improving classroom quality in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods may help to support young children’s socioemotional and behavioral development. Sensitivity analyses using multi-level modeling and additional covariates will be included in the final presentation.