Description of the condition
In many parts of the world, children are legally obliged to attend school at a particular age. The age at which compulsory education begins can range between four and seven years, depending on location. Developmental differences between children are rarely taken into consideration when setting the age of school entry; nor are they always reflected in the teaching and learning environment within mainstream education. Children who start school without being ready to cope with the requirements of formal education may be significantly disadvantaged (Duncan 2007; Duncan 2010; Sawhill 2012). There is some evidence that delaying formal schooling until six or seven years of age (as in Finland, for example) may confer benefits (Fleischman 2010; McEwan 2008; OFSTED 2003; Prais 1997; Russell 1986) and early introduction to formal learning can have negative consequences for a child's emotional well-being (Elkind 2001). Datar 2006 found that delaying school starting age by one year significantly boosted test scores when children started formal education. Analysis of the National Child Development Study found that test scores at age seven were significant predictors of adult outcomes in educational attainment and the labour market at age 23 (Connolly 1992) and 33 (Harmon 1988; Robertson 1996); those scoring in the lowest quartile at age seven earned on average 20% less than the rest of the sample (Currie 2001). Analysis of the Terman Life Cycle Study found that starting school early was associated with lower educational attainment, worse midlife adjustment and increased mortality risk (Kern 2009).
The benefits of delaying kindergarten entrance are significantly larger for 'at-risk' children, for example: children living in poverty; children with a disability; children of mothers with low educational attainment; children in lone parent families; or children who have English as a second language (Datar 2006; Duncan 1997; Lee 2002; Lipina 2009; Zill 1998). This may be because starting compulsory education later maximises the likelihood that children are developmentally 'ready' for school, or be explained by exposure to other preschool activities that facilitate school readiness, or both. In low- and middle-income countries, increasing emphasis and priority is being placed on access to quality preschool education in international development policy (UNICEF 2012); children in these economies face multiple disadvantages and increasing school enrolment, improving academic achievement and reducing school drop-out are considered key to providing a route out of poverty.
School readiness is increasingly recognised as a composite of the readiness of an individual child and that of the environment into which s/he enters when starting school (Kagan 1997).
School readiness most often refers to a child's readiness for formal learning in a school setting. It is a multi-dimensional concept that encompasses the behavioural, emotional and cognitive aspects of a child’s development, alongside his or her adaptation to the classroom environment (National Education Goals Panel 1991). Children who struggle in school include those who are academically (or cognitively) not able to cope, who have problems with communication or social skills, who are unable to follow directions, and who find it difficult to work on their own (poor concentration) or in groups (turn taking, collaboration) (see Caprara 2000; Diekstra 2008; DiPerna 1999; Durlak 2011; Pasi 2001; Zins 2004). Children who start formal education 'school ready' are much more likely to learn, stay on in school and succeed (CGECCD 2008; Nonoyama-Tarumi 2009; Save the Children 2004; Stith 2003).
There is some debate around the precise definition of school readiness and how it should be assessed (Aiona 2005). One view is that children are ready for school once they reach a certain age; others specify school readiness as a range of skills and competencies that a child is taught at home or in a childcare environment. Another view assesses readiness on multiple factors of the child's family (the family context and home environment), community (the level of resources and support made available to families with young children), services (extent of quality, accessibility, and affordability of programmes available locally to support families with young children), and early learning centres/schools (aspects such as school attainment levels and class sizes, which indicate the quality of education available).
For the purposes of this review, we will define school readiness in terms of the five domains set out by the National Education Goals Panel (National Education Goals Panel 1997):
Physical development and health - this incorporates a child's health, background, status, growth, and disability. The development of motor skills is also essential to school readiness, from the gross motor skills required in physical play and development to the fine motor skills used for writing and drawing.
Social and emotional development - this involves a child's ability to interact with others and their capacity for self regulation. It encompasses children's self perception and their ability to understand other people's feelings, and interpret and communicate their own feelings.
Approaches to learning - this refers to a child's attributes to apply their skills and knowledge, for example, curiosity, creativity, independence, co-operativeness, and persistence.
Language and literacy - this refers to a child's engagement with language in both written and oral forms.
Cognition and general knowledge - conducting play-oriented, exploratory activities that stimulate knowledge. It includes thinking and problem-solving as well as developing knowledge about particular objects and how the world works. Mathematical knowledge, abstract thought, and imagination are included in this domain.
Size of the problem
Research has estimated that 10% to 20% of school-enrolled children display emotional and behavioural barriers to learning significant enough to warrant formal intervention (Sugai 2000). This figure rises to 30% to 50% in neighbourhoods with high levels of deprivation (Adelman 2008). Analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study found that UK children from low- to middle-income families were five months behind children from high-income families in terms of vocabulary skills and had more behaviour problems (Washbrook 2011). For those children living in poverty, persistent achievement gaps by social class can be identified as early as nursery stage, suggesting that the problem must be tackled before school (Brooks-Gunn 1997; Coley 2002; Grantham-McGregor 2007; Lee 2002; Walker 2007; West 2000).
Consequences for children not ready for school
Success at school can impact positively on a child’s self esteem, behaviour, attitude, and future success (Lynch 1997; Pianta 1996); failure at school can impact directly on long-term outcomes such as unemployment, crime, teenage pregnancy, and psychological and physical morbidity in adulthood (Hertzman 1996), and perpetuates the cycle of disadvantage. Children who start school with problems that interfere with their ability to settle, enjoy school, and learn are therefore significantly disadvantaged. Negative and antisocial behaviour is often related to poor academic performance, and for those experiencing emotional difficulties and family disruption, school drop-out, academic failure and discipline problems at school are very much a risk (Alexander 2001; Kutash 2006; Loeber 2000).
Description of the intervention
A range of different interventions have been developed to promote school readiness in young children across the globe, in low-, middle-, and high-income economies. Most focus on preparing the child for the academic content of education, with a particular focus on literacy and numeracy, but many also concentrate on developing the psychosocial competencies important for learning, including self regulation, sitting still, listening, following instructions, and taking turns in conversation and play. As indicated above, emphasis is also placed on the readiness of the home, the school/early education setting, the community (i.e. the resources and support available) and the services available to a family with young children. Parents and other caregivers have a profound impact on a child's learning, with diet, sleep, stress, and attachment all exerting an influence on a child's ability to develop and learn. Hence, some school readiness interventions include primary and community health care, parenting advice, and social services support to help parents with accessing benefits, job seeking, and health care advice, including nutrition and parenting skills. The US Head Start Program, for example, offers family-based interventions for at-risk children that include targeted support for their mothers, such as mental health services, substance abuse counselling, employment assistance, housing assistance and continuing education (Lacy 1997). Programmes vary in duration and intensity but often involve two or more part-time sessions per week over a 12-week or longer period in the months prior to a child starting school. Interventions are often targeted at low-income families and those who do not speak English as their first language as they tend to be less ready for school. There are also specific programmes tailored for children with special needs.
Interventions, which may be provided via nationally funded programmes for preschool children, such as Head Start, vary in the range of educational, health, nutritional, and social services they offer, and in the teaching methods and curricula they provide; they may be tailored to the individual child. Interventions may focus on one or more of the following domains.
Physical development and health: many of the programmes also place emphasis on supporting parents to help their children. These schemes endorse positive discipline, promoting learning and developing by encouraging parents to work with their children, encouraging home reading, and reinforcing what is learned in the early education setting.
Social and emotional development: developing prosocial friendship skills, emotional understanding and expression, self control, and social problem-solving skills. Play underpins many of the teaching strategies, and through the provision of appropriate indoor and outdoor play environments, children can learn about setting rules and consequences, explore and develop their sense of the world, communicate with others as they problem solve, take risks and make mistakes, and think creatively and imaginatively. Books are also used to explore difficult issues such as bullying or domestic violence.
Language and literacy: developing key pre-literacy skills is embedded in many of the interventions. These help children develop their vocabulary and communication skills, and phonological awareness, and an understanding of print conveying meaning and letters creating a code of language. Strategies can include interactive reading programmes that encourage children to ask questions, discuss and retell stories or predict story endings, and require early education centre staff delivering the intervention to engage active listening, language expansion, and de-contextualised talk. Rhymes and songs with mime and gesture are used to support language development. Children are encouraged to practise letter shapes and early writing skills in painting and drawing to develop their fine motor skills as a precursor to independent writing. Shared or paired reading is also used to enhance language and literacy skills, and promote an appreciation of books. These strategies are all used to develop pre-reading and pre-writing skills.
Approaches to learning: children are encouraged to explore new experiences to develop their curiosity and confidence in trying new things. In Maths and Science activities, they are encouraged to ask questions, form hypotheses or make guesses. Children are encouraged to read and write stories, and change or make up their own endings. Games including 'I Spy' can be used to extend natural curiosity. These kinds of activities are used to help children develop problem-solving skills, apply persistence to achieve an outcome, and use their initiative to develop their independence. Creative play using role play and props and materials is also a method used to develop these competencies.
Cognition and general knowledge: mathematical concepts are introduced through play, with the use of mathematical vocabulary to describe everyday objects and positions. Story time and circle time is used to help relate informal mathematical knowledge to more formal mathematical concepts.
Environmental readiness: environmental factors can help support children's transition to school. This growing emphasis on the importance of environmental readiness reflects, in part, the needs of the growing number of children with working mothers and experiencing childcare outside the home and in childcare centres. Families with small children also need to have access to appropriate health care, affordable quality childcare, and to live in safe neighbourhoods. Many of the interventions reference classroom organisation and structure, which directs different types of learning through play in a variety of locations in the classroom. There is an emphasis on stimulating resources and equipment, including building blocks, art and science materials, books, and computer software.
How the intervention might work
Essentially, school readiness programmes seek to mitigate the risk factors associated with children facing poverty and disadvantage through the nurture and development of key skills and competencies required for formal learning, and by attempting to reduce the achievement gap that is already present once children start school. Using Head Start as an example (Head Start Resource Centre 2011), and taking each of the above domains in turn, school readiness interventions seek to do the following.
1. Ensure children are socially and emotionally ready, and able to:
engage and maintain positive adult-child relationships and interactions;
maintain positive peer relations;
display attention, emotional regulation, and appropriate classroom behaviour;
develop a sense of self, self confidence, and identity.
2. Ensure children have or develop adequate language and literacy skills, and are able to:
build and use increasingly complex vocabulary;
use language for conversation and communication;
engage with literature.
3. Promote a positive approach to learning, such that children:
show interest in varied topics and activities;
persist when working.
4. Ensure children have or develop adequate cognitive skills and general knowledge, so that they are able to:
use mathematics regularly;
ask questions, make predictions, develop hypotheses to gain understanding of their environment.
5. Ensure that children are physically well, and able to:
be healthy and safe;
use large muscles to control movement, balance etc.;
use fine motor skills.
6. Provide a 'ready environment' such that:
systems of early care and education are available to families in order to secure appropriate care and support services;
schools recognise that each child has unique learning needs, and provide age-appropriate and developmentally relevant early education learning environments, linked to other children's services;
families are economically stable and parents are well informed about bringing up their children;
families have access to community-based health care, including harm prevention, and the promotion of safe neighbourhoods and supportive communities.
It is also important to note that a number of school readiness programmes have been developed to target specific populations. Children from immigrant families often face multiple disadvantage: poverty, poorer mental and physical health, lower verbal interaction and shared literacy experiences at home, discrimination and access to poorer quality education (Brooks-Gunn 2005; Schofield 2006; Waters 2005; Yoshikawza 2011). Specifically tailored interventions have been used to meet the needs of this group, which can include multi-lingual approaches to teaching and culture-specific classroom resources; sensitivity to discrimination by peers and educators; engaging parents in programme and curricular development; parent counselling; and gateway service provision for accessing health and social services.
Intervention programmes may differ in their emphasis or in the combination of factors they address. The focus of this review will be programmes that include literacy and numeracy skills along with a focus on social and emotional learning.
Why it is important to do this review
Failure at school can have a significant and lifelong impact on the social and physical well-being of an individual, which can impact on future generations (Woodhead 1985). Evidence suggests that school readiness is an important independent factor and predictor of future academic achievement, even controlling for variations in cognitive abilities and family resources (Grolnick 1994). Evidence from the US reported that 40% of children eligible for Head Start (low-income) are turned away because of lack of funding, with less than 5% of those eligible for Early Head Start receiving the early infant intervention (Helburn 2002). Recent moves in the UK also sought to reduce early years funding and it is therefore important to review the evidence of its effectiveness. The economic and social investment return in early childhood education programmes is greater than other governmental human capital development programmes (UNICEF 2012); however, many governments invest less than 2% in preschool education (UNESCO 2007). International evidence has estimated a 20% to 30% loss in income in countries where investment in preschool programmes is minimal (Grantham-McGregor 2007; Handa 2008). School readiness is an integral part of the work towards universal access to basic education as set out in UNESCO's Millennium Development Goals (United Nations 2000), Education for All (World Education Forum 2000) and World Fit for Children (UNICEF 2003). A recent systematic review (Petrosino 2012) found that interventions aimed at improving school enrolment in developing countries were having a positive impact; children who are 'ready to learn' are more likely to stay on in school once enrolled (UNICEF 2012).
A number of systematic reviews have been conducted in aspects of early education. Miller and colleagues completed a systematic review on home-based child development interventions for preschool children from socially disadvantaged families (Miller 2012). Another review of early childhood education programmes examined interventions targeting children experiencing poverty (Chambers 2010), and meta-analyses conducted by Camilli and colleagues (Camilli 2010) and Darrow (Darrow 2009) concentrated on literacy and cognitive-focused interventions. However, there is currently no Cochrane systematic review of early education interventions designed specifically to assess school readiness.