Poster Paper: Within-Family Differences in Head Start Participation and Parent Investment Behavior

Friday, November 4, 2016
Columbia Ballroom (Washington Hilton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Kathryn E. Gonzalez, Harvard University

Understanding how parents make educational investment decisions is crucial to the formation of policy focused on children and families. There is some evidence that parents in the U.S. make child-specific investments that compensate for, rather than reinforce, differences across siblings in terms of initial endowments such as birth weight and IQ (e.g. Datar, Kilburn and Loughran, 2010). However, there is limited understanding of how parents’ decisions regarding the allocation of time and resources across siblings is affected by differences in the out-of-home exposure to resources and services that children receive in early childhood. In the present study, I examine the extent to which parents reinforce or compensate for differences in their children’s access to programs that promote childhood development by comparing measures of parental investment later in childhood for children who attended Head Start relative to their siblings who did not attend preschool.

Data for the present study come from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, and include 4,297 children and families where there were differences across siblings in the type of childcare used (Head Start, other center-based preschool, or home-based care), and where children were aged 3-4 between 1986 and 2002. The outcomes of interest include observer-collected and parent-reported measures of cognitive stimulation and emotional support provided by the child’s family from the Home Observation Measurement of the Environment (HOME) Inventory for ages 5 to 14.

This study builds on the literature using family fixed effects to estimate the causal impact of Head Start participation (e.g. Garces, Thomas and Currie, 2002). I use family fixed effects to compare levels of parental investment in education (cognitive stimulation and emotional support) throughout childhood (ages 5 to 14) for children who attended Head Start relative to their siblings who did not attend preschool. To account for differences in parental investment over the course of childhood, I compared levels of parental investment when siblings were the same age.

I find that parents compensate for within-family differences in Head Start attendance by providing lower levels of cognitive stimulation and emotional support to children who attended Head Start than to their siblings who did not attend preschool. Total HOME inventory scores for children who attended Head Start were 0.06 SD lower relative to their siblings. Children who attended Head Start received less emotional support from parents primarily during ages 5-6, and received less cognitive stimulation throughout childhood (ages 5-14).

These findings are consistent with the existing evidence on parental educational investment across siblings in response to differences in birth endowments. However, these results suggest that parent compensate not only for differences due to prenatal factors, but also differences in access to resources in early childhood.


Datar, A., Kilburn, M. R., & Loughran, D. S. (2010). Endowments and parental investments in infancy and early childhood. Demography47(1), 145-162.

Garces, E., Thomas, D., & Currie, J. (2002). Longer-Term Effects of Head Start. The American Economic Review92(4).