New research suggests that school districts with access to free/reduced pre-kindergarten programs are changing the health outcomes for their constituents in a very positive way.
In 2014, New York City expanded its universal pre-k program in a major way. The city, which is the largest school district in the country, more than doubled the number of students who attended free pre-kindergarten from 20,000 to 51,500 in an effort to boost their school success with a stronger foundation before formally starting school.
In addition to early access to literacy skills that will strengthen reading readiness in kindergarten and beyond, researchers have found that the developmental screenings that occur in pre-k actually help identify, diagnose and treat conditions that may potentially delay learning and/or cause significant health and/or behavioral problems later.
These screenings that typically would not occur until the beginning of traditional kindergarten increased the odds of a child being diagnosed with conditions like asthma or vision issues, and in turn, being treated for them before kindergarten even started.
The research, which was published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, didn’t necessarily look at the academic benefits pre-k might give to children, but instead how universal pre-kindergarten programs like the one introduced in New York would improve children’s access to healthcare.
Their preliminary results based on medicaid data imply that universal pre-k programs are indeed improving the likelihood of earlier diagnosis and treatment for children who have asthma or vision/hearing issues.
Researchers looked at Medicaid data in New York City because the population of children enrolled in Medicaid, a federal program that offers healthcare to low-income families, is quite similar to the population of children who were enrolled in the universal pre-k programs.
They looked at children born in 2010, who were the first to be eligible for the universal pre-k program’s 2014-15 school year and found that those children were 1% more likely to be diagnosed and receive treatment for hearing issues. More, they were more likely to receive diagnoses of asthma (between 1.3%-2.1% more likely) and in turn, be treated for such.
Though these numbers don’t seem very significant, it actually shows a shift in how diagnosis and treatment will be overall in the lives of this group.
This is important information, as early detection and intervention of issues that could prevent learning leads to the best academic successes long-term for children. Early childhood educators are more likely to have the training required to detect issues, and exposure on a consistent basis will allow children to be treated and develop strategies to combat those issues before they become larger ones in the traditional k-12 system.
And for many, particularly lower-income children, who have issues with vision or hearing that are undetected before they enter traditional schooling, there’s research that says those children often become frustrated and develop poor attitudes toward school, often before second grade.
Researchers hope that early diagnosis and intervention, as what seems to be happening with the universal pre-k system in New York, can help those children in small ways early on, but pay off big in later school years.