Study shows preschool can prevent child abuse

By Emily Carlson

In one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, a little girl with pigtails and a denim jumper stands in front of a table and fingers the shape of wooden letters as she fits them into a puzzle. In the next room, her mother talks to a parent-resource teacher about taking the GED and how she can help her daughter with homework.

According to a new study by researchers at UW-Madison, this type of learning environment does more than strengthen skills – it helps cut the rate at which enrolled children will be abused or neglected by their parents or caregivers. The findings, published in the current issue of the journal Child Development, provide new evidence that preschool programs can impact not just school readiness and performance, but long-term family outcomes.

Each year, three million cases of child maltreatment are reported and about one-third of them are substantiated, says Arthur Reynolds, a UW-Madison professor of social work and human development and principal investigator of the published study. Reynolds says that many risk factors contribute to a child’s likelihood of being maltreated but that poverty is always high on the list: “Low-income families living in high-poverty neighborhoods are among the most at risk of childhood abuse and neglect.”

The social isolation and stress that result from poverty, he says, put children at risk of being maltreated. Mitigating the effects of poverty, he argues, could reduce the chances of childhood abuse and neglect.

Reynolds, who has studied a group of children enrolled in a Chicago-based early educational intervention program, wondered if the program and the services it provided lowered the children’s risk of being abused and neglected. The answer, he says, appears to be “yes.”

As part of the Chicago Longitudinal Study started in 1985, Reynolds has been studying the effects of the Chicago School District’s Child-Parent Centers (CPC) on the lives of those who have attended them. The intervention centers, administered by the Chicago public schools since 1967 and funded through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, strive to provide for the “total child,” which means also providing services for the parents. After Head Start, it is the oldest federally funded preschool.

While teachers at the centers, located in public schools, help 3- to 9-year- olds acquire basic skills in language arts and math, resource coordinators help the children’s parents receive the support and services they need to care for their kids at home. School-age services are also provided.

“There’s a heavy emphasis on parent involvement,” says Reynolds. The central principle of the intervention program, he adds, is that this direct parent involvement can enhance parent-child interactions, parent and child appreciation of school and social support among parents. This, along with being affiliated with school districts, is what distinguishes the program from other early interventions, such as Head Start. Plus, all of the teachers have bachelor’s degrees and certification in early childhood.

To understand the effects of the CPC program on maltreatment rates, Reynolds and UW-Madison graduate student Dylan Robertson examined substantiated reports of child abuse or neglect from juvenile court petitions and referrals to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

They looked specifically at the time when the children were between 4 and 17 years old. They compared 913 children who participated in a CPC preschool program with 495 low-income children who did not attend the program but who did receive full-day kindergarten. They also examined the effects of extended participation at a CPC, which can last up to third grade.

The researchers made two important findings. Children who attended the preschool intervention program, compared to those who didn’t, had a 52 percent lower rate of maltreatment by age 17. Among children who attended a CPC program, those who were enrolled for more than four years experienced a 48 percent lower rate of maltreatment than those enrolled between one and four years.

The findings show that it isn’t just the preschool program that produces a beneficial effect, says Reynolds. “The extended program lowers the rate even more, continuing the benefits of CPC.” School quality, parent involvement and children’s school achievement were main sources of these beneficial effects.

By examining family and child well-being over time, the researchers also found that the greatest difference in maltreatment rates between children who attended a CPC preschool program and those who didn’t occurred when the children were 10 to 17 years old – that’s at least six years after enrollment.

“This finding suggests that the benefits of early intervention don’t fade over time, that the principles taught during the program can lead to enduring effects,” explains Reynolds. According to Reynolds, this is the first study to show that a school-based educational intervention program with intensive parent involvement, such as the CPC program, can reduce child maltreatment: “Most other interventions to prevent child abuse have not proved effective.” In earlier studies, Reynolds linked CPC participation to lower delinquency rates, special education needs and grade retention rates, and higher levels of educational attainment and achievement.

While these programs typically cost more than most state-run preschool programs, Reynolds says the findings show that the return is substantially greater. A cost-benefit analysis of the CPC program by Reynolds and colleagues will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. The Chicago Longitudinal Study is funded by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Education.