11/25/2014 04:57 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

Full-day Preschool Programs Promote Kindergarten Readiness

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By Kathryn Doyle

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Kids who attended full-day preschool programs were more ready for kindergarten and had fewer absences than kids who attended half-day preschool programs, according to a new study.

It is surprising that full-day preschoolers performed better in many different domains, including language, math, socio-emotional and physical health, according to lead author Arthur J. Reynolds of the Institute of Child Development and Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Full-day preschoolers also had 45 percent fewer chronic absences than half-day preschoolers, he noted.

Reynolds and his coauthors evaluated preschoolers at the end of the 2012-2013 school year in 11 Chicago schools, including predominantly black or Hispanic children age four to five.

For the full-day program, 409 kids attended the Child-Parent Center for seven hours a day, while 573 kids had attended the three-hour version of the program.

Kids in the seven-hour programs scored higher on language, math, socio-emotional development, and physical health tests, though the differences were modest in some cases.

Literacy and thinking skill scores were similar for both groups, according to results in JAMA.

Full-day kids had fewer absences than kids in the three-hour programs.

Around half of the kids in the full-day programs were 'chronically absent,' missing at least 10 percent of school days, compared to almost 72 percent of kids in half-day programs.

Full-day preschoolers averaged 936 hours of instruction for the year, compared to 418 hours for the half-day preschoolers, more than double the hours of instruction, Reynolds noted.

"The general expectation is that greater exposure to a good program should yield better results than lesser exposure, and this study is an example of that," said Lawrence J. Schweinhart of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

"But some studies have not confirmed this general expectation, probably because the programs were not so good," he told Reuters Health by email.

Schweinhart wrote an editorial about the results.

The measured differences in school readiness were equivalent to a four to five month advantage for the full-day group, Reynolds said. More than 80 percent of full-day preschoolers met national norms for total school readiness compared to 59 percent of half-day preschoolers.

It is possible, but very unlikely, that kids in the full-day program might be different from kids in the half-day program in other ways that would explain the advantage in school readiness, Reynolds told Reuters Health by email.

"We focused on children in the same schools and they had equivalent performance at the beginning of the year and were similar in many characteristics," he said.

Cost is the main drawback of full-day preschool programs, which are nearly double the cost of part-day programs, he said.

"Higher income families have this choice, but most lower income families that rely on state pre-k or school programs don't have much choice," Reynolds said.

Typical state pre-k or head start programs are only part-day, he said.

"Our study shows the advantages of increasing the availability of full-day publicly funded programs," he said. "Not enough full-day programs are available today, especially that are high in quality."

The Midwest Child-Parent Center program in this study has highly qualified teachers, small classes, active learning opportunities, many supports for families, and support for staff that are essential for high quality learning experiences, he noted.

As the study only included preschoolers, it did not link kindergarten readiness with later academic performance or other measures of success.

"I have my doubts that the added value of full-day over part-day found in this study will show up in longer-term results," Schweinhart said.

But preschool will likely lead to better long-term results than no preschool, he said.

SOURCE: JAMA, online November 25, 2014.



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