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-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Head Start? No Start Without Fathers


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


The Head Start program enjoys a luminous reputation among liberal commentators and policymakers, many of whom believe that its work with preschoolers can compensate for deficiencies in these children’s family life. Unfortunately, this belief looks rather suspect in light of a new study concluding that children from single-parent homes are particularly inattentive in class, even after participating in Head Start, and so get relatively little out of school.  

As scholars at Pennsylvania State University, the authors of the new study recognize the negative consequences when children fail to pay attention in class, particularly if their classroom inattention continues or gets worse over the years. “High rates of inattentive classroom behaviors have severe consequences for children’s academic achievement and attainment,” the researchers note, adding that inattentive classroom behaviors “predict an academic future characterized by low grades, poor test scores, and a reduced likelihood of high school graduation.” Because of their focus on young Head Start children, the researchers are especially mindful of evidence from previous research that “classroom inattention in the early school years may reduce children’s exposure to instruction in foundational academic skills, including pre-literacy and numeracy skills, delaying or impeding subsequent academic skill development, which may account for the sustained impairments in achievement among inattentive kindergarten children, even when their attention improves in the later elementary years.”

But which children are most at risk of becoming these inattentive low-achievers? And which inattentive children will grow out of the problem and which will not? To answer such questions, the Penn State researchers track 356 Head Start students through the fifth grade.

Among the researchers’ findings, one casts serious doubt on the belief that Head Start can erase problems consequent to family disintegration: “Children in single-parent families were more likely to exhibit stable high or rising inattention trajectories,” the researchers report, “whereas children in two-parent families were more likely to show declining inattention trajectories in early elementary school” (p < 0.05).

The persistently high level of classroom inattention among children from single-parent homes catches the attention of the researchers, who offer a number of possible explanations. “Single parenthood and the processes associated with separation and divorce may affect inattention directly,” they conjecture, “by increasing levels of child stress and feelings of anxiety in ways that distract or over-burden their attention processing.” Also plausible as reasons that inattentiveness runs higher among children from single-parent homes than among peers from intact families are the “higher levels of daily hassles, stress, social isolation, and depression and lower levels of emotional and parenting support” typically found in single-parent homes. It is not surprising, then, that the researchers believe that “single-parent or disrupted family systems may . . .  reduce the level of organization and routine at home, reducing the amount of parental attention, supportive monitoring, and effective management of child behavior and homework support, and thereby increase child vulnerability to inattention and distractibility.”

The clear findings of this study raise a serious question about the liberals who persist in championing Head Start as a cure to the problems caused by family breakup—were they not paying attention in class when their teachers covered basic logic?

(Tyler R. Sasser, Charles R. Beekman III, and Karen L. Bierman, “Preschool Executive Functions, Single-Parent Status, and School Quality Predict Diverging Trajectories of Classroom Inattention in Elementary School,” Developmental Psychopathology 27.3 [2015]: 681-93.)

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