Head Start CARES: Taking Social and Emotional Interventions to Scale

Blog Post
April 18, 2014

The success of any new curriculum or instructional strategy often depends on how effectively and completely a teacher implements that new approach in her classroom. Trying to expand an instructional program across multiple teachers in multiple classrooms―the notion of “scaling up”―without compromising program quality proves even more challenging.  But a recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers preliminary evidence that large-scale preschool programs, like Head Start, can implement proven instructional strategies consistently on a broader level.

Head Start CARES (Classroom-based Approaches and Resources for Emotion and Social skill promotion) is the first large-scale nationally randomized study of strategies for promoting the social and emotional development of four-year-olds.  The study, conducted from 2009-2011, involved more than 3,600 children in 307 classrooms in 10 states.

The project examined the implementation and impact of three interventions designed to boost children’s social-emotional development: the Incredible Years Teacher Training Program, Preschool PATHS, and Tools of the Mind―Play.

Although all three programs in the study focus on developing children’s social and emotional skills, each one targets a different teaching practice to impact children's outcomes.  The Incredible Years, for instance, focuses on modifying teachers’ classroom management approach to promote positive teacher-child relationships.  Preschool PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies), meanwhile, provides teachers with highly scripted lessons about emotions and social interactions that teachers incorporate into the school day.  Finally, Tools of the Mind―Play trains teachers how to support children’s imaginative play to encourage them to explore social roles and different viewpoints.

Each of the three interventions has shown positive benefits for the social-emotional development of low-income children in smaller randomized studies.  But “a key question [for the researchers] was whether it would be possible to implement such programs on a large scale,” explains Shira Mattera, lead author for the project’s initial report, A First Look at the Head Start CARES Demonstration.

Based on their initial findings, Mattera and her team believe it is possible.

The key to scaling up, according to the report, is providing teachers with the training and support they need to understand new classroom interventions and implement them “with fidelity,” that is in the original manner intended by their developers.

“For a system such as Head Start, or preschools in general, scaling up across many sites without losing quality or drifting from the program’s intention is an enormous hurdle,” Mattera explains.  “This report presents both evidence that it is possible and a blue print for what is needed to do so.”

The Head Start CARES project included an extensive professional development model to support the scaling of the three interventions across multiple sites.  Lead and assistant classroom teachers received manuals and classroom materials along with ongoing training related to the specific social-emotional intervention they implemented.  They also had weekly coaching sessions in their classrooms.  Additionally, the research team provided continuous program monitoring and technical assistance to the participating Head Start grantees to address any implementation challenges.

The researchers used a five-point scale to rate how effectively and completely each classroom implemented its assigned intervention and established a score of three as “satisfactory.” Although the average fidelity score varied for each enhancement, researchers determined that teachers implemented all three enhancements at a satisfactory level.  Moreover, the fidelity scores improved during the school year.  By mid-year, 83 percent of Head Start CARES classrooms had scored above the satisfactory level of three and by the end of the school year 60 percent of classrooms had scored higher than four, “indicating that they were implementing the enhancements well and consistently,” according to the report.

The report highlights just how much effort may be necessary to ensure these interventions realize their potential.

Given how much implementation support these teachers received―a level that extended beyond typical experiences with new interventions―the report highlights just how much effort may be necessary to ensure these interventions realize their potential. But researchers believe the extra assistance was necessary to ensure that the CARES classrooms implemented the three social-emotional interventions with “reasonable quality and intensity” so they could, in turn, evaluate the impact of those enhancements on students.

“We saw this implementation report as an opportunity to set the stage for the impact report to make sure this is, in fact, a fair test of these enhancements,” explains Mattera.  “We wanted to make sure when we look at the impact on classrooms we have a strong realistic model of how to implement these enhancements. … We can now look at the results from the impact study and feel confident that they are the results of a fair test.”

Whether the three strategies actually impact preschoolers’ social and emotional development remains to be seen.  The Office of Head Start and the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, which sponsored the CARES project, will release the results of the impact study this summer."