Moving beyond the average effect: Quantifying and exploring variation in Head Start treatment effects on parenting behavior
Ryan, Rebecca M
Differences in the quality and quantity of parenting that children in low- compared to middle- and high-socioeconomic status (SES) families experience account for a quarter to a third of the gaps between these groups of children in their early skills (Waldfogel & Washbrook, 2011). Parenting interventions hold promise for promoting positive parenting practices among low-income parents, but face barriers with regard to recruitment and retention. As one of the largest sources of federal support for low-income families in the U.S., Head Start provides a promising opportunity to enhance parenting in this population. Prior research has found evidence for small-moderate impacts of Head Start on some parenting behaviors (Gelber & Isen, 2013; Puma, Bell, Cook, & Heid, 2010). However, prior research focuses on the average effect of Head Start, ignoring potential heterogeneity of treatment effects across different Head Start centers. In a set of three studies, the present dissertation quantifies the cross-site variation in Head Start treatment effects on parenting behaviors and tests whether that variation is statistically different from zero; explores whether characteristics of centers predict variation in treatment effects; and explores whether characteristics of families served by centers predict variation in treatment effects. Findings demonstrated that Head Start is effective on average at promoting parents’ cognitively stimulating behaviors with children but that programs vary in their effectiveness, and that Head Start is consistently ineffective at lowering parents’ use of harsh punishment. Some of the examined center and family characteristics predict cross-site variation in Head Start effects, but sometimes in unexpected directions. Implications of these findings are discussed.
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