A preschool enrichment program developed at Penn State helps build social and emotional skills that still have positive effects years later in middle and high school, according to a new study.

The researchers found that students attending Head Start preschools who implemented the Research-based, Developmentally Informed (REDI) program were less likely to experience behavioral issues, peer issues, and emotional symptoms such as feeling anxious or depressed by the time they have reached seventh and ninth grades. .

Karen Bierman, psychology professor at Penn State Evan Pugh, said she was encouraged that students were still showing benefits from the program years later.

“The program had an effect on internal benefits, including better management of emotions and emotional well-being, as well as on external benefits, such as reduced driving problems,” Bierman said. “So not only has the program resulted in fewer distressed adolescents, it has also resulted in less distress for their teachers and peers. It is an important finding to know that we can promote these long-term benefits by intervening early with strategic prevention. programming integrated into a well-established public program such as Head Start. “

Living in poverty is difficult for children and their families, researchers say. Lack of resources and additional stress increase the risk that a child will develop gaps in social, emotional and language skills by the time they start school, placing them behind other children growing up in richer conditions. Additionally, this gap tends to widen over time, putting children in low-income families at risk for developing emotional and behavioral problems by the time they reach adolescence.

But Bierman said previous research has also shown that stronger early socio-emotional and self-regulatory skills can protect against these effects, creating an opportunity for preschool programs to help fill some of these gaps.

The REDI program was developed at Penn State as a way to build on the existing Head Start program, which provides early childhood education to low-income children. The REDI program aims to improve social and emotional skills, as well as early language and literacy skills, by incorporating stories, puppets, and other activities that introduce concepts such as understanding feelings, cooperation, friendship skills and self-control.

Bierman said the program uses a classroom program called Preschool PATHS, which stands for Promote Alternative Thinking Strategies.

“It’s a program that teaches skills like how to make friends, how to be aware of your feelings and those of others, and how to deal with strong feelings and conflict,” Bierman said. “These programs are designed to improve a child’s ability to get along with others, to regulate his emotions and to develop his coping skills.”

She added that REDI also promotes language development with daily interactive reading and discussion sessions that engage children in speaking through the social and emotional challenges faced by the characters in the story.

For the study, the researchers identified 25 preschool centers participating in Head Start. After obtaining the consent of the children’s parents, 356 children were allowed to participate in the study. Classrooms were randomly assigned to be part of the intervention group – which included improvements to the THINK program – or the comparison group, which was ordered to continue the school year as usual. .

Students were assessed at the start and end of the preschool year, as well as at several checkpoints as they passed through elementary, middle and high school. For this study, teachers assessed grade seven and ninth students on factors such as conduct problems, emotional symptoms, hyperactivity and inattention, and problems with peers.

“After the kids left preschool, they went to many different schools and school districts,” Bierman said. “Once they hit grade seven and ninth, their teachers who evaluated this study did not know who had been in REDI classrooms and who had not, so it was all about a blind assessment. “

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that the number of students with clinically significant levels of conduct problems, emotional symptoms, and problems with peers was lower for children who had been in Head Start classes featuring implements the REDI program against those of the Head Start classes. without REDI enhancements.

In ninth grade, 6 percent of REDI students had very high conduct problem ratings compared to 17 percent in the comparison group, and 3 percent of REDI students had very high emotional symptoms versus 15. percent in the comparison group. In addition, 2% of the students in the PENSER program had very serious problems with their peers, compared to 8% in the control group.

“Teachers gave these scores using clinical screening questionnaires, so students with very high levels of difficulty may have issues significant enough to be referred for mental health treatment,” Bierman said. “The main effect of the REDI program was to reduce the number of adolescents classified in the highest risk category in adolescence and to move them to a lower risk category.”

The researchers said the results – published today (December 10) in the American Journal of Psychiatry – suggest that programs like THINK can help reduce gaps in school readiness and mental health that can arise when early development is disadvantaged by financial hardship and lack of access to resources and supports.

“We found that the effects that lasted until adolescence were not in academic areas like literacy and math, but in socio-emotional areas,” Bierman said. “Perhaps in the past we have focused too much on improving academic learning in preschool and have not paid enough attention to the value of enriching preschool with the socio-emotional supports that build character and enhance academic adjustment.We know from other research that these skills become very important in predicting overall high school graduation success, supporting future employment, and fostering good -be general in life. “