Strengthening Head Start: What the Evidence Shows. Research has identified what children need to succeed in school


Before children can read, write or calculate, research shows that children must acquire foundational knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are stepping stones toward mastery of more advanced and complex skills.

Children are better off if they enter kindergarten with cognitive resources.

Children who bring certain knowledge and skills with them to kindergarten are likely to be at an advantage in classroom learning compared to their peers who do not possess these resources. A Department of Education report described the predictive power of having specific cognitive and health resources on childrens reading and mathematics achievement.(29) These resources included:

  • possessing specific basic literacy knowledge and skills;
  • being read to at least three times a week at kindergarten entry;
  • being proficient in recognizing numbers and shapes at kindergarten entry;
  • showing productive approaches to learning, such as an eagerness to learn, task persistence and ability to pay attention; and
  • possessing good to excellent health.

Each of these was a key predictor of childrens reading and mathematics achievement in the Spring of kindergarten and in first grade, even after controlling for childrens race, ethnicity and poverty status. These data confirm that we must ensure that all children, regardless of background, are physically healthy and have the same basic literacy, mathematics, and cognitive experiences and skills needed to succeed in school.

Child development research shows which areas of competency to target.

Research experts and practitioners in fields relating to early childhood recommend that children make progress in each of the following areas to help ensure they are developing school readiness knowledge and skills.(30)

  • In the area of pre-reading, children should develop: phonological processing skills (hearing and playing with sounds in words, for example, through rhyming games), letter knowledge (knowing the names and sounds of letters), print awareness (knowing how to hold a book, that we read in English from left to right and usages of print), writing, and interest in and appreciation of books, reading, and writing.(31)
  • In the area of language, children should develop receptive and expressive vocabulary skills (ability to name things and use words to describe things and actions); narrative understanding (ability to understand and produce simple and complex stories, descriptions of events, and instructions); phonology (ability to distinguish and produce the different sounds of language); syntactic or grammatical knowledge (knowing how to put words together in order to communicate with meaning); and oral communication and conversational skills (knowing how to use words in appropriate contexts for a variety of purposes, such as knowing when and how to ask a teacher for more information, or understanding how to take turns in a conversation).(32)
  • Children should develop pre-mathematics knowledge and skills that include number concepts (recognizing written numerals, counting with an understanding of quantity, knowing quantitative relationships such as more and less), number operations (such as adding and subtracting); geometry concepts (such as recognizing shapes); space, patterns, and measurement concepts and skills (such as measuring length using their hands or measuring using conventional units such as inches)(33)
  • Children should develop cognitive skills that include the ability to plan and problem-solve, the ability to pay attention and persist on challenging tasks, intellectual curiosity and task engagement, and achievement motivation and mastery.
  • Children need social and emotional competencies important for school success and a constructive learning environment. These include the ability to relate to teachers and peers in positive ways, the ability to manage feelings of anger, frustration and distress in age-appropriate ways, and the ability to inhibit negative behaviors with teachers and peers, for example, aggression, impulsiveness, noncompliance, and constant attention-seeking.(34)

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