Early Intervention Programs Essay

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Early childhood intervention programs aim to positively impact developmental outcomes for at-risk children by targeting and enhancing skill sets related to school achievement, social competence, and mental and physical health. Research shows that social, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and health problems that appear early in childhood generally worsen over time in the absence of intervention. Furthermore, these problems are related to school failure, substance abuse, and aggression later in the child’s life. Children whose backgrounds include low socioeconomic status, low maternal education and verbal ability, minority status, parental histories of substance abuse and mental illness, or a parental native language other than English appear to be particularly susceptible to these problems. Relative to their more advantaged counterparts, at-risk children are likely to have been exposed to and victimized by more violence, which has been shown to be predictive of a range of emotional and behavioral problems. Moreover, at-risk children are likely to already suffer from language delays stemming from a lack of access to developmentally appropriate books and learning tools, a chaotic home environment, and parents who may have low education and verbal ability themselves. Early intervention programs are predicated on the hypothesis that decreasing risk factors (e.g., early behavioral problems, language delays) while increasing protective factors (e.g., child social competence, parenting skills) in at-risk children and their families may prevent chronic distress and facilitate healthy child development.

Head Start

Head Start, an early intervention program funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is perhaps the best known, as well as the most comprehensive program currently available for at-risk families. Participants include children from birth to age 5 and their families whose household incomes fall below the poverty line. Head Start provides services through a variety of modalities, including center-based, home-based, and “mixed” programs in urban and rural communities across the country. The program intervenes directly with both the children and their parents, training each in relevant skills, while providing access to medical care and other social services.

Head Start promotes cognitive and social development for preschool-age children. Classrooms provide a stimulating and supportive learning environment in which children can hone their language, prereading, and cognitive skills in preparation for school. This may be the first socialization experience for these children in which they have an opportunity to practice social skills such as negotiation, emotion regulation, and communication. This is critically important given the evidence that children who can make and keep friends and navigate social situations effectively are more likely to be academically successful and less likely to become aggressive and use substances than children who fail to achieve social competence. Head Start also recognizes the substantial impact that physical health has on a child’s developmental course; consequently, children in the program receive routine medical and dental health screenings, and are taught good nutrition and health maintenance practices.

Head Start maintains a commitment to working in conjunction with parents in order to cultivate a nurturing, supportive, and safe home environment that will be conducive to long-term developmental success. This is accomplished by addressing parental risk factors, including mental health problems and substance abuse, while teaching parents developmentally appropriate parenting skills. Indeed, Head Start parents report using less corporal punishment and experiencing less domestic violence than at-risk families not enrolled in Head Start. Furthermore, Head Start parents report reading more frequently with their children. Early parent–child reading is thought to be an important literacy experience for several reasons: It teaches children that books tell stories and that stories follow a logical sequence; it teaches that real life objects can be represented by words; it allows children to build their vocabularies; it is a correlate of language and cognitive development; and it serves as a bonding experience for parents and children. Head Start also encourages parents to further their own education, which, in turn, may help to promote the value of education in a household.

Efficacy Of Early Intervention Programs

According to available data, Head Start children make gains during the course of program enrollment compared to their at-risk counterparts who do not receive intervention. It appears that center-based and combined programs produce the largest impact for children, while home-based programs elicit the greatest change in parenting skills. Outcomes for parents and children seem to depend in part on both the quality and the quantity of the intervention. While Head Start has demonstrated short-term improvement in child and family functioning to varying degrees, it is unclear whether the program reliably elicits long-term change in at-risk families.

Other two-generation early intervention programs (targeting at-risk children and their parents) have produced equivocal results. For instance, the Infant Health and Development Program recruited low birth-weight infants and their families and provided a comprehensive intervention including home, center    based, and group support components, until the children turned 3. At the end of the program, those children receiving the intervention demonstrated greater cognitive and behavioral gains than their counterparts; however, those gains had faded by age 7. Another early intervention program, Even Start, aims to improve school achievement in at-risk children by providing literacy-focused education to children and parents from low-literacy homes. The findings thus far suggest that children and parents receiving interventions do not achieve greater literacy ability than those not receiving the interventions.

Across early intervention programs, outcome studies tend to compare subsets of at-risk children, making it less clear how disadvantaged children receiving interventions ultimately fare compared to children whose families have greater financial resources. Furthermore, research indicates that the families at the greatest risk for poor outcomes are also the most likely to be noncompliant with program procedures and to leave the program prematurely; this suggests that the children who would potentially benefit the most from such interventions are also the least likely to profit from the experience. More research on the efficacy of early intervention programs is clearly warranted, with a particular emphasis on means of enrolling and retaining the most vulnerable families, as well as collecting data on long-term outcomes.


  1. Love, L. M., et al. (2005). The effectiveness of Early Head Start for 3-year-old children and their parents: Lessons for policy and programs. Developmental Psychology, 41, 885–901.
  2. Magnuson, K. A., & Waldfogel, J. (2005). Preschool child care and parents’ use of physical discipline. Infant and Child Development, 14, 177–198.
  3. Raikes, H., Green, B. L., Atwater, J., Kisker, E., Constantine, J., & Chazan-Cohen, R. (2006). Involvement in Early Head Start home visiting services: Demographic predictors and relations to child and parent outcomes. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 21, 2–24.
  4. Raikes, H., et al. (2006). Mother-child book reading in low-income families: Correlates and outcomes during the first three years of life. Child Development, 77, 924–953.

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