Panel Paper: Center-Based Early Care and Education and the School Readiness of Special Needs Children

Friday, November 8, 2013 : 9:45 AM
DuPont Ballroom F (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Anna D. Johnson and Deborah Phillips, Georgetown University
Much research links exposure to center-based early care and education (ECE) in the pre-kindergarten year to enhanced school readiness at kindergarten entry. Additional evidence implies that center-based ECE may be especially beneficial for the academic skill development of children who are vulnerable because of low-income, race/ethnic, or language minority status. However, little is known about whether the positive effects of center-based ECE, which includes Head Start, public pre-kindergarten, and community-based preschools and child care centers, extend to children who experience other vulnerabilities, such as those with mild to moderate special needs. And, nothing is known about how center-based ECE might help or hinder the development of children who are “doubly disadvantaged” because they are both low-income and have special needs. Given that, alongside low-income children, special needs children have been the major focus of public funding to support early learning, this knowledge gap is troubling from a policy perspective.

There is reason to believe that center-based ECE may be especially effective at boosting the school readiness of special needs children, as has been found for other groups of children who are at risk for poor school performance. The greater emphasis of center-based ECE, as distinct from parental care or home-based non-parental care, on school readiness skill development and its similarity to the kindergarten classroom environment may help ease the transition from preschool into kindergarten for children who may otherwise struggle to keep up with their peers. And, center-based ECE may be especially promoting of school readiness among children who face the “double disadvantage” of being both special needs and low-income.

The proposed study aims to increase our understanding of associations between center-based ECE experiences and school readiness in kindergarten for special needs children, asking first whether there are effects, and if so whether these effects for special needs children are similar to those for their typically-developing peers, and finally whether effects are stronger for children who are doubly disadvantaged because they are both low-income and have special needs.

To address these questions, we use data from the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Birth Cohort (ECLS-B). The ECLS-B collected comprehensive information from parents and children at each of its 4 waves, including data on child special needs status and cognitive and social school readiness skills in kindergarten. Preliminary results from OLS regression models suggest that attending center-based ECE in the preschool year is associated with increased kindergarten reading and math skills among children with special needs (B=5.29, SE=2.14, p<.05 for reading; B=3.46, SE=1.64, p<.05 for math); similar patterns were found for typically-developing children. Next steps include replicating these models on the sub-sample of children who are low-income.  

Findings from this study will expand our “toolbox” of strategies for enhancing the development of special needs children and perhaps especially those from low-income families. Results will also inform newer policy initiatives that seek to universalize access to pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year olds, such as the universal pre-kindergarten programs in Oklahoma and Georgia.