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Impact findings from the Head Start CARES demonstration: National evaluation of three approaches to improving preschoolers' social and emotional competence

The Head Start CARES (Classroom-based Approaches and Resources for Emotion and Social skill promotion) demonstration tests three distinct approaches to enhancing children's social-emotional development on a large scale within the Head Start system -- the largest federally funded early-childhood education program in the United States. Conceived and sponsored by the Office of Head Start and the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Head Start CARES demonstration was conducted by MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization, in collaboration with MEF Associates and several academic partners. The three social-emotional approaches tested in Head Start CARES were called "enhancements" because they complemented and enriched classroom practices that already existed. The effects, or "impacts," of the enhancements were rigorously evaluated by randomly assigning approximately 100 Head Start centers to one of the three enhancements (the program group) or to a control group that continued with "business as usual." Therefore, estimated impacts should be interpreted as the effects of the enhancements over and above any effects of the existing Head Start program in these sites. As described in an earlier report on the Head Start CARES demonstration, a comprehensive professional development system for teachers -- including four to six training sessions, weekly coaching sessions in the classroom, a "real-time" management information system (MIS) to support monitoring, and technical assistance -- supported the scale-up of the enhancements around the country. The teacher training and coaching were generally implemented as intended, supporting satisfactory implementation (a rating of 3 on a scale of 1 to 5) of the social-emotional enhancements in Head Start classrooms and leading to the expected influences on teachers' practices, which are described below. Thus, it appears that the demonstration ensured a fair test of large-scale implementation of the three enhancements, providing a sound basis for evaluating their impact on children and classrooms in the Head Start system. This report presents the impacts of the three enhancements tested in the Head Start CARES demonstration. It focuses on outcomes in the spring of the preschool year for (1) teachers' practices; (2) the climate of the classroom; (3) children's behavior regulation, executive function skills, knowledge and understanding of emotions ("emotion knowledge"), and social problem-solving skills; and (4) children's learning behaviors and social behaviors. In addition to changing teachers' practices, two of the three enhancements had consistent positive impacts on a range of children's social-emotional outcomes, although not necessarily in ways that would be expected according to the theories of change that the CARES team developed. The Head Start CARES study thus demonstrates that preschool children's social-emotional outcomes can be improved when evidence-based approaches -- that is, approaches that have been shown to result in differences in children's social and emotional outcomes -- are implemented at scale with appropriate supports. The report also includes an exploratory set of findings, which have not been previously tested for these enhancements, about whether the enhancements might improve children's early academic skills in preschool and whether they have any sustained effects as preschool children make the transition to elementary school. (author abstract)
Resource Type:
Reports & Papers
United States
State(s)/Territories/Tribal Nation(s):
California; Colorado; Illinois; Maryland; Massachusetts; Mississippi; New Jersey; Ohio; Pennsylvania; Texas

Related resources include summaries, versions, measures (instruments), or other resources in which the current document plays a part. Research products funded by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation are related to their project records.

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