Four year olds in the nation’s largest preschool program fare worse with 3 year olds in their classrooms, according to new research that shows a common practice in most Head Start programs may stunt children’s learning.
Three-fourths of Head Start classes teach 3- and 4-year-old children together, but a new study led by researchers at UT Austin found that older children make smaller academic gains on average when taught with younger preschoolers. In the classrooms where the two age groups were evenly split, 4 year olds in the study were an average of nearly five months of academic development behind their 4-year-old peers who were in classrooms without 3 year olds.
The effect is strong enough, researchers say, to suggest that mixed-age classrooms are preventing some children from starting kindergarten ready to learn math and reading.
“We may be selling Head Start children short if we put 3- and 4-year-old children together,” said Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences. “We’ve known for a couple of years that 4 year olds don’t perform as well in Head Start as other children, and this may be a big reason why.”
The study, which used data from more than 2,800 children nationwide in nearly 500 Head Start classrooms, is due to be published in the journal Psychological Science.