Pre-K ParentCorps Reduces Educational Disparities and Mental Health Issues

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Laurie Miller Brotman, PhD Bezos Family Foundation Professor of Early Childhood Development Director, Center for Early Childhood Health and Development Department of Population Health NYU Langone Medical Center

Dr. Laurie Brotman

Laurie Miller Brotman, PhD
Bezos Family Foundation Professor of Early Childhood Development
Director, Center for Early Childhood Health and Development
Department of Population Health
NYU Langone Medical Center

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: Children attending high-poverty schools are often exposed to an accumulation of stressors and adverse childhood experiences that can interfere with optimal mental health and learning. This study examines mental health and academic outcomes through second grade in nearly 800 Black and Latino children who participated in a randomized controlled trial of ParentCorps–a family-centered, school-based intervention in pre-kindergarten.

In the original trial, elementary schools with pre-k programs serving primarily Black and Latino children from low-income families were randomized to receive ParentCorps or standard pre-k programming. ParentCorps includes professional development for pre-k and kindergarten teachers on family engagement, social-emotional learning, and behavioral regulation, and a program for families and pre-k students provided over four months at the school by specially trained pre-k teachers and mental health professionals. ParentCorps creates a space for families to come together, reflect on their cultural values and beliefs, and set goals for their children. Parents learn a set of evidence-based strategies and choose which ones fit for their families—such as helping children solve problems and manage strong feelings, reinforcing positive behavior, setting clear rules and expectations, and providing effective consequences for misbehavior. Teachers and parents help children learn social, emotional and behavioral regulation skills such as identifying feeling sad, mad, or scared, calming bodies during stressful situations, paying attention, and solving problems together.

This three year follow-up study finds that ParentCorps as an enhancement to pre-k programming in high-poverty schools results in fewer mental health problems (behavioral and emotional problems) and better academic performance through second grade.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Parents and teachers in pre-k programs enhanced with ParentCorps successfully created safe, nurturing and predictable environments for children. The combination of these early experiences and sustained efforts by parents to be engaged in children’s learning set the stage for all children in these pre-k programs to develop social, emotional and behavioral skills that are foundational for both mental health and learning. The subgroup of children (about 25% in this study) who enter pre-k without adequate self-regulation skills, such as not being able to follow directions or getting easily frustrated are at especially high risk for learning and mental health problems. Self-regulation facilitates on-task behavior and optimal management of attention, motivation, and stress reactivity while learning. Children without these skills are much more likely to have negative interactions with teachers and peers, and ultimately to develop emotional or behavioral problems that interfere with learning. ParentCorps interrupts these negative interactions and consequences by helping parents and teachers understand each child’s particular needs and tailoring evidence-based strategies to promote skill building.

Nearly 90% of parents participated in this study, and the findings on impact include all children in pre-k regardless of level of parent participation in the Parenting Program. Therefore, we can estimate what the effects might be for the entire population of Black and Latino children attending pre-k in high-poverty schools with ParentCorps, relative to those attending standard pre-k. Children in schools without ParentCorps were twice as likely to have clinically significant mental health problems by second grade. This suggests that ParentCorps delivered as an enhancement to pre-k programs serving primarily low-income children of color has the potential to improve population health and reduce disparities. Additionally, the size of ParentCorps’ impact on academic achievement through second grade was approximately half of the Black-White achievement gap. Together these findings suggest that as early childhood education programs become increasingly available to four-year olds throughout the country, additional investment in supporting parents and early childhood teachers to create safe, nurturing and predictable environments for children has the potential to reduce disparities in education and health.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: ParentCorps is currently being implemented and evaluated in 25 schools and early childhood centers in NYC with plans to double this number over the next three years. Next steps include an evaluation with a more diverse population of children and families served by a broad range of educators and mental health professionals. Together with the NYC Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Education and the Research Policy and Support Group, we are designing an evaluation plan that will answer questions critical to population health and education and considers questions about resource allocation and best practices related to scaling ParentCorps and evidence-based practices for family engagement and social emotional learning. Lessons learned from this collaboration between researchers and policymakers in the context of the largest school district in the country will be of value to other urban centers seeking to improve pre-k program quality and engage families as a strategy to advance health and education outcomes for all children, especially children of color from low-income families.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: The ParentCorps Parenting Program includes a core set of behavioral strategies (e.g., positive reinforcement, consequences) that are found in nearly all parenting programs that help children develop foundational social, emotional and behavioral skills. The ParentCorps Parenting Program is unique by placing culture at the center of all activities and discussions and honoring every family’s culture as important and protective. For example, in the first session, groups of 15 – 20 parents of pre-k students reflect on their cultural values and beliefs in relation to the goals they set for their child and for themselves as parents, and these culturally-informed goals become the focus of subsequent sessions. Throughout the program, the process is collaborative, allowing for the mutual transfer of expertise in which parents reflect on their cultural values and beliefs in the context of their goals and in reaction to the parenting strategies that are introduced by the facilitators. Driven by the unique characteristics of their child, their family and their culture, and informed by “the science of parenting” (i.e., evidence-based strategies), parents then make their own decisions about whether and how to use the strategies, while facilitators expect and accept that the use of strategies will be individualized to each parent’s reality rather than prescribing that all parents try all strategies. For example, a parent may decide not to use time out as a discipline strategy outside of the home because public misbehavior (crying or screaming during the time out) is unacceptable according to her cultural norms.

ParentCorps Professional Development for teachers and school staff provides opportunities to consider the unique barriers faced by families living under stressful conditions such as poverty and discrimination and reflect on assumptions about parents that may interfere with efforts to connect with parents (e.g., parents are uncaring or incapable). Discussions aim to create a space in which teachers share honestly the frustration they may feel toward parents, and experiential activities are designed to create shifts in how teachers think, feel and act.

As part of ThriveNYC, a citywide, mayoral initiative to support the mental health of all New Yorkers, NYC Pre-K Thrive aims to promote family engagement and social-emotional learning in pre-k. In collaboration with the Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Education (DECE), NYU Langone’s Center for Early Childhood Health and Development is supporting sustainable high-quality implementation of ParentCorps in 50 pre-k programs, and spreading ParentCorps evidence-based practices to 300 additional pre-k programs through professional learning for pre-k program leaders and teachers. In addition, all 1850 Pre-K programs serving nearly 70,000 pre-k students annually will be supported by professional learning for the entire workforce of 125 DECE social workers and city-wide dissemination of evidence-based tools to promote family engagement and social emotional learning.

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