Study finds preschool programs lower special education referrals

February 3, 2015

Child's drawing.

Children in state-supported, high-quality early childhood programs were less likely to be placed in special education, according to a study released Tuesday.

The study, which took place in North Carolina between 1995 and 2010, looked at the impact of two programs funded by the state. The North Carolina Pre-kindergarten Program, formerly called More at Four, is designed for 4-year-olds who speak limited English, are disabled or chronically ill, are behind their age developmentally or whose families have an annual income at or below 75 percent of the state median income. The other program, Smart Start, provides child, family and health services from birth through age 5 and is open to all of the state’s children.

The study by Duke University researchers found that spending $1,110 per child in the pre-kindergarten program – the funding level in 2009 – reduced by 32 percent the likelihood that those students would be placed in special education by the end of 3rd grade. An investment of the same amount in the Smart Start early childhood initiative reduced the likelihood by 10 percent. Most children in North Carolina are referred to special education before grade 4, the researchers said.

Published in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis journal, the study found that both programs helped children with preventable categories of learning disabilities, such as developmental delays. In addition, the pre-kindergarten program helped children with a variety of health impairments and those who were mildly mentally disabled. However, neither program had a measurable impact on behavioral-emotional disabilities or categories that were less malleable, such as children with some physical disabilities and those who had speech impairments.

The researchers chose the two programs because of their recognition nationally as high-quality intervention programs for young children.

Nationwide, special education costs nearly twice as much as general education, the study’s authors said. In addition, children placed in special education are at higher risk of dropping out of school and committing crimes as adults, they said.

“These major investments in childhood programs have been important not only to the future of students, but to the state’s financial bottom line,” said lead author Clara G. Muschkin, who serves as associate director for Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy. “Our research finds that the effects of these initiatives for students are quite large and still paying off after students have completed almost four years of elementary school.”

In North Carolina, 49 percent of students are in special education because of speech or language impairment, and 39 percent have developmental delays. Autism accounts for about 7 percent of special education children. The remaining 5 percent of children have a variety of disabilities including mental retardation, hearing loss and orthopedic impairment.

The benefits of the preschool programs may not be limited to the children who participate in them, the authors said.

After children enter elementary school, even if they have not been in preschool, they “can still benefit from being in classes with more students who have had access to high-quality early childhood initiatives,” Muschkin said. “Access to high-quality early education contributes to more positive elementary school classroom environments, as well as to fewer subsequent placements in special education.”


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