National Household Education Survey, Statistical Analysis Report, October 1995
Kindergarten is now a nearly universal experience for children in the United States: 98 percent of children attend kindergarten prior to entering first grade. However, the population of children that comes to kindergarten is increasingly diverse. Growing numbers of children in the United States come from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, family types, parent-education levels, income strata, and language backgrounds. Young children also differ in the types of preschool experiences they bring to kindergarten. The majority of children come to kindergarten with some experience in center-based programs such as day care centers or preschools. The percentage of children with such experience varies, however, across groups with different backgrounds and characteristics.
Schools in the United States are expected to respond to this diversity in children's backgrounds and educational needs, furnish all children with appropriate activities and instruction, and get each child off to a good start in his or her schooling. An understanding of the range of accomplishments and difficulties that children bring with them when they arrive at kindergarten can aid in understanding the demands being placed on schools and the needs of the entering children. Indeed, some of the difficulties discussed here are only experienced as difficulties when children enter school. Information about the developmental characteristics of preschoolers is also relevant for assessing where the United States stands with respect to one of the eight National Education Goals: "By the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn."
This report examines the prevalence of selected accomplishments and difficulties in a national sample of 4,423 children from 3 to 5 years of age who had not yet started kindergarten. The accomplishments and difficulties examined in this report represent characteristics related to dimensions or domains of development that are important to a child's early learning: physical well-being and motor development, social and emotional development, language usage, and general knowledge. The accomplishments consist of signs of emerging literacy and numeracy, such as pretending to read stories or counting to 20, and small motor skills, such as buttoning clothes and holding a pencil properly. The difficulties encompass signs of physical activity-attention difficulties, speech difficulties, and less than optimal health. The determination of whether the child displayed each of these accomplishments and difficulties is based on reports from one of the child's parents, usually the mother. These data were collected in January through April 1993 as part of the National Household Education Survey.
The study focuses on 2,000 children who had turned 4 by the end of 1992 and were about 6 months away from starting kindergarten at the time of the survey. A majority of these 4-year-olds displays each of the small motor skills and signs of emerging literacy asked about in the survey. The size of the majority, however, varies greatly across specific accomplishments: More than 9 out of 10 could button their own clothes and hold a pencil properly, and more than 8 out of 10 could identify the primary colors by name; but only about 6 in 10 could count to 20 or recognize most letters of the alphabet.
Much smaller fractions of preschoolers exhibit any of the developmental difficulties, although a substantial minority displays signs of physical activity-attention difficulties. At age 4, nearly 3 in 10 are said to be very restless and fidgety, and nearly 1 in 4, to have a short attention span. Nearly 1 in 8 is reported to be in less than very good health. About 1 in 13 speak in a way that is not understandable to a stranger or have a stutter or stammer.
The percentage of children displaying signs of emerging literacy and small motor skills increases with years of age within the 3- to 5-year age range, and with months of age among 4-year-olds. For example, the percentage of preschoolers reported to write their own names more than triples between ages 3 and 4, while the percentage recognizing most letters more than doubles. Other accomplishments show more moderate age differences. Developmental difficulties show much smaller changes across ages, and some show no change.
More girls than boys demonstrate each of the literacy and small motor skills covered in the survey, and more boys than girls exhibit signs of physical activity-attention difficulties or speech difficulties. Though differences by sex are widespread, they are not large.
Hispanic preschoolers are reported to show fewer signs of emerging literacy and more indications of physical activity-attention difficulties, and to be in less good general health than white non-Hispanic or black non-Hispanic children. Controlling for related risk factors such as a mother with limited education and minority-language status reduces these ethnic differences but does not eliminate them. Black preschoolers show fewer signs of emerging literacy and less good health than white preschoolers. However, racial differences are wholly accounted for by related risk factors such as low maternal education, poverty, and single parenthood.
The accomplishments and difficulties that children bring with them when they arrive at kindergarten are correlated with sociodemographic risk factors that have been found to be associated with learning difficulties after children start school. Five family risk factors are examined: The mother has less than a high school education; the family is below the official poverty line; the mother speaks a language other than English as her main language; the mother was unmarried at the time of the child's birth; and only one parent is present in the home. Half of today's preschoolers are affected by at least one of these risk factors, and 15 percent are affected by three or more of them.
Risk factors are found to be associated with fewer accomplishments and more difficulties in children, even after other child and family characteristics were controlled. Of the developmental domains, only small motor development is not found to be related to any of the risk factors. In general, the more risk factors the child is subject to, the lower the number of accomplishments and the higher the number of difficulties he or she is likely to have exhibited. Compared to children from families with no risk factors, twice as many 4-year-olds from families with three or more risk factors have short attention spans (37 percent versus 17 percent) and nearly double the number are said to be very restless (41 percent versus 22 percent). Three times as many speak in a way that is not understandable to strangers (14 percent versus 5 percent) or stutter or stammer (16 percent versus 5 percent). Almost five times as many are in less than very good health (23 percent versus 5 percent). Four-year-olds from families with three or more risk factors have nearly one-and-a-half fewer literacy accomplishments (an average of 2.5 out of five) than those from families with no risk factors (who have an average of 3.9 accomplishments).
The relative importance of individual risk factors varies across developmental domains. Low maternal education and minority-language status are most consistently associated with fewer signs of emerging literacy and a greater number of difficulties in preschoolers.
The study shows that attending Head Start, prekindergarten, or other center-based preschool programs is linked to higher emerging literacy scores in 4-year-olds. The increase, which amounts to an average of nearly one full accomplishment out of five, remains statistically significant when other child and family characteristics are controlled. This benefit of preschool attendance accrues to children from both high-risk and low-risk family backgrounds. On the other hand, preschool attendance is found not to be associated with fewer behavioral or speech difficulties, or with better health status in preschoolers. It is possible that further research taking into account measures of quality (e.g., child-staff ratio) would show some effect in these other domains.
The results of the study point to a need for innovative approaches to the provision of early education services to disadvantaged children. As previous studies have shown, existing preschool programs have beneficial effects in the area of emerging literacy and numeracy. But they do not appear to be ameliorating the behavioral, speech, and health difficulties of disadvantaged preschoolers. The need for earlier and more effective interventions for young children with special educational needs has been recognized in federal legislation.
The results also demonstrate that educational risk is a multifaceted phenomenon. Five different risk factors are employed in the present study. All are found to have some relationship to preschoolers' accomplishments and difficulties, although the pattern of relationships varies across developmental domains. Many observers believe that low family income is the key factor behind educational failure, but the results of this research do not support this view. When compared to low family income, the risk factors of low maternal education, minority-language status, and family structure are often as good or better predictors of the child's developmental accomplishments and difficulties.
By showing the considerable variation that exists in the accomplishments and difficulties of children about to start school, the study highlights the challenges that kindergarten teachers face in meeting the needs of children who are not only demographically but developmentally diverse. Teachers must maintain the interest and promote the growth of children who have already demonstrated signs of early literacy and numeracy while simultaneously encouraging the emergence of basic skills in children who have not yet acquired them. Similarly, they must meet the needs of children with difficulties while reserving sufficient attention and effort for those with few or no difficulties. While there has always been variation in children entering kindergarten, the commitment to meeting the educational and developmental needs of all children in an increasingly diverse society presents greater challenges to teachers and schools.
Achieving this goal requires that early childhood programs and classrooms be organized to meet the needs of children at all levels of development, that teachers be selected who have the energy, warmth, and imagination to respond to young children with varying capabilities and needs, and that these teachers be appropriately trained and provided with sufficient resources and assistance so they do not have to neglect some children in order to nurture others. There is still much to learn about how well kindergarten programs around the country are meeting these requirements.
Summary and Discussion
Survey Methodology and Data Reliability
Appendix A: NHES:93 Interview Items Concerning Developmental Accomplishments and Difficulties
Appendix B: Regressions Testing Interaction Between Preschool Program Participation and Sociodemographic Risks
Table 1. Percentage of 3- to 5-year-old preschoolers with reported developmental accomplishments, by child's age: 1993
Table 2. Percentage of 3- to 5-year-old preschoolers with reported developmental difficulties, by child's age: 1993
Table 3. Percentage of 4-year-old preschoolers with reported signs of emerging literacy and numeracy and average number of these accomplishments reported, by child and family characteristics: 1993
Table 4. Percentage of 4-year-old preschoolers with reported small motor accomplishments and average number of accomplishments reported, by child and family characteristics: 1993
Table 5. Percentage of 4-year-old preschoolers with reported physical activity-attention difficulties and average number of these difficulties reported, by child and family characteristics: 1993
Table 6. Percentage of 4-year-old preschoolers with reported speech development indicators and average number of speech difficulties reported, by child and family characteristics: 1993
Table 7. Health status of 4-year-old preschoolers, by child and family characteristics: 1993
Table 8. Linear regression models relating developmental accomplishment and difficulty indexes to sociodemographic risk factors and control variables for 4-year-old preschoolers: 1993
Table 9. Linear regression models relating developmental accomplishment and difficulty indexes to sociodemographic risk index and control variables for 4-year-old preschoolers: 1993
Table 10. Linear regression models relating developmental accomplishment and difficulty indexes to preschool program attendance, sociodemographic risk index and control variables for 4-year-old preschoolers: 1993
Table 11. Agreement and inconsistency in the interview and reinterview responses to developmental accomplishment and difficulty items
Table B-1. Linear regression models relating developmental accomplishment and difficulty indexes to preschool program attendance, sociodemographic risk index, interaction of program attendance and risk, and control variables: 4-year-old preschoolers, United States, 1993
Figure 1. Developmental accomplishments and difficulties included in the 1993 National Household Education Survey
Figure 2. Percentage of 4-year-old preschoolers with reported accomplishments and difficulties: 1993.
For more information about the substantitive content of this report, contact Kathryn Chandler at Kathryn.Chandler@ed.gov.