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Families of head start children: a research connection.

The present study looked at the diverse family systems of Head Start children. With the underpinnings of Family Systems Theory, it specifically addressed the following main research questions: (1) Do families of African-American and Caucasian Head Start children experience parenting stress? (2) Is perceived lack of parental competence associated with child related stress in families of African-American and Caucasian Head Start children? (3) Is there a relationship between African American and Caucasian mothers' perceived level of parental competence and parental competence? Seventy families of African American background and 70 families of Caucasian background were randomly selected for participation. The Parenting Stress Index was utilized as one of the research tools. Findings indicate that families of African American background and Caucasian background experience parenting stress which is within the normal range of stress experienced by all of the parents. Further, a strong/positive relationship exists between perceived lack of competence and child related stress for African American mothers and a modest positive/direct relationship exists between perceived lack of competence and child related stress for White mothers. And finally, there is a trend for African American and White mothers with more education to feel competent as a parent.

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Head Start is a federally funded program. It provides comprehensive developmental services to America's culturally and economically disadvantaged pre-school children. The program focuses on children's educational, psychological, nutritional, physical, and mental health needs. Since its inception in 1965, the program has served approximately 16 million children. And more recently, it has extended its services to disabled preschoolers irrespective of their socioeconomic status (Zigler, 1994).

Family is an integral part of Head Start's intervention. Parents are encouraged to participate in program planning and program delivery. However, interrelated problems of paternal absence, low literacy skills, and chronic unemployment prevalent amongst families of Head Start children, often interfere with their active involvement (Leik & Chalkey, 1990).

Despite less than desirable family environments, research shows that Head Start exerts a positive influence on its children's cognitive growth (Levite, 1993). Surprisingly, the positive effects of Head Start differ for African American children. They fade away and they fade away rather quickly (Lee & Leob, 1995). Researchers like Chalkley, Leik, Duane, Rarick, & Carlson (1991) ascertain that there are definite racial/ cultural differences in Head Start's impact.

Reviewing previous research, Leik, Chalkley, & Duane (1991) have noted that very little is known about the impact of Head Start on its children's families. There are some reports of stress experienced by Head Start families (Leik & Chalkley, 1990). And researchers have cautioned that family stress can attenuate the effects of Head Start (Chalkley & Leik, 1995; Chalkley & Leik, 1997). Clearly, there is need to know more about families of Head Start children. Family is a powerful resource (Fewell, 1986).

The present study was designed to meet the pressing needs of current knowledge base. It aimed to investigate the diverse family systems of Head Start children. Specifically, the study addressed the following questions:

1. Do families of Caucasian and African-American Head Start children experience parenting stress?

2. Is perceived lack of parental competence associated with child related stress in families of African-American and Caucasian Head Start Children?

3. Is there a relationship between African American and Caucasian mothers' perceived level of parental competence and educational level?

Research Methods

This section describes the setting, sample, comparison group, instrumentation, and data collection procedures.

Setting

The present study was carried out in Niagara Falls in cooperation with Niagara County Head Start. Niagara County Head Start serves approximately 480 pre-schoolers of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Children are served at five centers in the county. These centers are 1. Lockport Center 2. Newfane Center 3. Niagara North 4. Niagara South 5. North Tonawanda. The enrollment at the five centers is illustrated in the Figure 1 below.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Sample and Comparison Group

Seventy mothers (n=70) of African-American background and seventy mothers of Caucasian (n=70) background were randomly selected from a master list of Head Start participating families. Families were informed about the study. Informed consent for participation was obtained from the randomly selected families.

The average age of the participating mother was 27.6 years (SD= 6.42) in the African American group, and 29.8 years (SD= 6.00) in the Caucasian group. Results of a t-test indicated that the difference between the mean maternal age of African American families and Caucasian families was not significant (t= -1.48, df=69, p=.142).

The majority of the mothers in African American group and Caucasian group were single. Twenty-five (80.6%) mothers in African American group and 21 (51.2%) mothers in Caucasian group reported that they were single. The results of a Chi square analysis indicated that there were significant differences between the families as far as mother's marital status is concerned ([chi square]= 6.62. df=1, P=.010).

The majority of the mothers in both of the groups worked outside the house. Nineteen (61.3%) of the mothers in African American group and 22 (53.7%) mothers in the Caucasian group reported that they work outside of the house. Also, 12 (38.7%) mothers in the African American group and 19 (46.3%) mothers in the Caucasian group tended the household only. A test of difference between the proportions supported the impression that there were no differences between the groups with respect to maternal employment ([chi square]=.41, df=1, P=.517).

The majority of the mothers in African American group had some sort of postsecondary education. Of the total 31 mothers, 17 (54.8%) mothers had 1-3 years of college; 10 (32.3%) mothers had high school or GED; and 4 (12.9%) mothers had educational level of less than high school. In Caucasian group, the majority of the mothers had high school or GED. Of the total 41 mothers, 18 (43.9%) mothers had high school or GED, 17 (41.5%) mothers had some sort of postsecondary education, and 6 (14.6%) mothers had educational level that is less than high school.

Further, the two groups of families were similar in terms of the gender of their child who attended Head Start Program ([chi square]=.001, df=1, P=.973). The African American group had 16 (51.6%) female children and 15 (48.4%) male children. The Caucasian group had 21 (51.2%) female children and 20 (48.8%) male children. As far as the age of referent child is concerned, 22 (71.0%) of the children in African American group were approximately 5 year old. And, 9 (29.0%) children were approximately 4 year old. In Caucasian group, 22 (53.7%) children were approximately 5 year old and 19 (46.3%) children were approximately 4 year old. The results of Chi-square ([chi square]=2.22, d=1, P=. 13 5) indicated that there are no significant differences between the two groups of families as far as the age of referent child is concerned.

In summary, Head Start families of African American background and Caucasian background were similar on the variables of: Maternal age, maternal employment, maternal level of education and age/gender of their children who attended Head Start Program. The average age of mother in both groups of families was in late 20's. The majority of the mothers in both groups of families had at least high school education. Also, the majority of the mothers in both groups of families worked outside the house. Families were also comparable as far as gender/age of their children who attended Head Start is concerned. Both of the groups had half boys and half girls who attended Head Start Program.

Instrumentation

The Parenting Stress Index (PSI) and a Demographic Questionnaire were selected for use in the present study. The PSI is a self-administered, 120-item instrument developed by Abidin (1995) to measure the magnitude of stress in the parent-child system. The PSI requires a reading level of 5 th grade. The PSI scores yield a family profile that can be used to identify different needs of families. As shown in Table 1, the PSI has 13 scales. The Demographic Questionnaire was developed by the principal investigator.

The PSI was chosen for the study because of its relevance for the research questions and its technical adequacy. Abidin (1995) reported internal consistency of .90 for Total Stress scale. Test retest reliability is also high, .96 for the Total Stress score.

Procedures

Data were collected during participating mothers' routine visits to the Head Start centers. During the mothers' visits, the principal investigator met with the mothers and gave them the PSI and Demographic Questionnaire. It took 20-25 minutes of their time to complete the tools. A total of 31 mothers of African-American group and a total of 41 mothers of Caucasian group completed the PSI and the Demographic Questionnaire. Some of the mothers who had consented to participate in the study were unable to come to the Head Start centers. Approximately 44.2% mothers of the African-American group and 58.7% mothers of the Caucasian group completed the PSI and Demographic Questionnaire.

Results

This section provides the findings to the research questions presented earlier in this paper. Each research question is dealt with separately on the following pages.

Research Question 1

Do families of African American and Caucasian Head Start children experience parenting stress?

For the purpose of this study, parenting stress was operationally defined as a score obtained by the mothers of African American and Caucasian Head Start children on the Parenting Stress Index (PSI).

To address this question, the scores obtained by the mothers of African American and Caucasian Head Start children were first compared with the norm score of the mothers of normative sample reported in the PSI Manual. This comparison indicated that majority of the families of African American and Caucasian Head Start children experience parenting stress, which is within the normal range of stress experienced by all of the parents. And then, comparison of African American families and Caucasian families was accomplished by computing the means and the standard deviations. As shown in the Table 2, the mothers of Caucasian children scored higher (M=225.00, SD=47.74) than the mothers of African American children (M=216.87, SD=36.11). A t-test for independent samples was utilized to ascertain if the observed difference between the group means was a real difference or if it was a difference by chance. The t-test resulted in a value of -.79 with P=.35 1, which is not significant, meaning that the mothers of Caucasian Head Start children do not perceive that they experience more parenting stress than the mothers of African American Head Start children

Research Question 2

Is perceived lack of parental competence associated with child related stress in families of African American and Caucasian Head Start children?

For the purpose of this study, lack of parental competence and child related stress were operationally defined as a score on the parenting Competence scale and Child Related Stress scale of the PSI respectively. This question aims to examine the relationship of mothers' perception of their competence as a parent and their perception of stress that they experience as they take care of their children on day to day basis.

To address the above question, the score obtained by mothers of African American group and mothers of Caucasian group on the Competence scale of PSI was correlated with their score on the Child Related Stress scale of the PSI. The Pearson product moment correlation coefficients (r) were computed. As evident from Table 3 and Table 4 respectively, a strong positive/direct relationship exists between perceived lack of parental competence and child related stress for African American mothers and modest positive/direct relationship exists between perceived lack of parental competence and child related stress for Caucasian mothers. That is, those African American and Caucasian mothers of Head Start children who feel more incompetent as a parent feel more stressed.

Research Question 3

Is there a relationship between African American and Caucasian mothers' perceived level of parental competence and educational level?

For the purpose of this study, mothers' perceived level of parental competence was operationalized as their score on the Competence Scale of PSI. Mothers' educational level was the highest level of education reported by mothers on the Demographic Questionnaire.

To address the above question, mothers' score on the competence scale of PSI was correlated with their highest level of education. Pearson product moment correlation was computed. As evident from Table 5 and Table 6, there is trend for African American and Caucasian mothers with more education to feel competent as a parent.

Summary of Findings

The preceding section addressed the research questions posed earlier in this paper. The analyses of data indicate that majority of the families of African American and Caucasian Head Start children experience parenting stress which is within the normal range of stress experienced by all of the parents. Further, a strong positive/direct relationship exists between perceived lack of competence and child related stress for African American mothers and modest positive/direct relationship between perceived lack of parental competence and child related stress for Caucasian mothers. That is, those African American and Caucasian mothers of Head Start children who feel more incompetent as a parent feel more stressed. And finally, there is a trend for African American and Caucasian mothers with more education to feel competent as a parent.

Discussion

The findings of this investigation should be interpreted with caution because of the following reasons. First, the non-respondents may have differed from the respondents in significant ways. For example, the non-respondents may have had little time to respond to the questionnaire that requires 25-30 minutes. Or, they may have felt hesitant in revealing their feelings. Second, the major findings of the study are based on maternal perceptions. Maternal perceptions are important, but do not necessarily reflect family realities. Third, many of the mothers responded to the questionnaires from their homes. They might have consulted with others in the household while filling out the questionnaires. As a result, the data could have been contaminated. And finally, participating mothers represent Niagara County Head Start. Because of various geographical/programmatic differences, the participating families may differ from the families of other geographical regions. Despite, some of the caveats mentioned, the present investigation is unique in that it has compared diverse family systems of Head Start children.

The findings of present investigation have implications for practice and research. The participating mothers of the present investigation represent Niagara County Head Start of New York. These mothers may differ from the mothers of other regions/ programs on critical variables. For a better understanding of the families of Head Start children, there is a need to replicate this study in different regions/programs. Perhaps National Head Start Association could collaborate for such an endeavor. Also, data for this investigation was collected at the end of Head Start year. It might be beneficial to collect data from mothers in the beginning of the year and then at the end of year. This type of data collection is likely to yield strong evidence as to the impact of Head Start on its families.

The study has the following implications for practice. First, the findings of this study show that African American and Caucasian mothers of Head Start children experience stress which is with in the normal range of stress, experienced by all of the parents. Clearly, since data for the study was collected at the end of academic year, Head Start programs need to continue with their family support services.

Second, since the findings of this investigation indicate that the more incompetent a mother feels as a parent, the more stressed she feels, there is need for Head Start programs to continue to support the parenting task of the families of Head Start children. Mothers need to feel competent in their parenting role. And finally, the findings of this investigation indicate a relationship between educational level and perceived level of maternal competence. Head Start programs need to continue encouraging mothers to strive for higher levels of education.
Table 1
Parenting Stress Index Scales

Child Domain Parent Domain

Distractibility Competence
Adaptability Isolation
Reinforces Parent Attachment
Demandingness Health
Mood Restriction
Acceptability Depression
 Spouse

Table 2
Parenting Stress Score for African American and Caucasian Families

African American Families Caucasiian Families

N M SD N M SD t P

31 216.8 36.11 41 225.0 47.74 -.79 .351

Table 3
Relationship Between Perceived Lack of Parental Competence
and Child Related Stress African American Families (N = 31)

 Child Related Stress

 Pearson r P

Perceived Lack of Parental Control .59 >.005

Table 4
Relationship Between Perceived Lack of Parental Competence
and Child Related Stress Caucasian Families (N = 41)

 Child Related Stress

 Pearson r P

Perceived Lack of Parental Control .36 .019

Table 5
Relationship Between Perceived Level of Parental Competence
and Education Level African American Families (N = 31)

 Perceived Level of Parental Competence

 Pearson r P

Education Level -.33 .068

Table 6
Relationship Between Perceived Level of Parental Competence
and Education Level Caucasian Families (N = 41)

 Perceived Level of Parental Competence

 Pearson r P

Education Level -.30 .058


References

Abidin, R. R. (1995). Parenting stress (3 d ed.). FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Chalkley, M. A., & Leik, R. K. (1997). The impact of escalating family stress on the effectiveness of Head Start intervention. National Head Start Research Quarterly, 1(1), 157-152.

Chalkley, M.A., & Leik, R. K. (1995, April). The impact of escalating family stress on the effectiveness of Head Start intervention. Paper presented at the National Head Start Association's 22 rid Annual Training Conference, Washington, D.C.

Chalkley, M. A., & Leik, R. K. (1997). Racial differences in the covariation of parental, family & child factors: The impact on changes in preschool children's perceived competence/acceptance (Tech. Report). University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.

Chalkley, M.A., Leik, RX, Duane G., Rarick, J., & Carlson, K. (1991, June). Bringing parents and children together: The effects of differences in perception and of racial/cultural variation. Paper presented at the New Directions in Child and Family Research: Shaping Head Start in the 90's, Arlington, VA.

Fewell, R. R. (1986). A handicapped child in the family. In R. R. Fewell and P. F. Vadsay (Eds.)., Families of handicapped children: Needs and supports across the life span. Austin, Texas: Pro-Ed.

Lee, V., & Leob, S. (1995). Where do Head Start attendees end up? One reason why preschool effects fade out. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 17, 62-82.

Leik, R. K., & Chalkey, M. A. (1990). Parent involvement: What is it that works? Children Today, 19(3), 34.

Leik, R.K., & Chalkey, M.A. (1993, November). Effects of race, cohort, intervention, & family stress on the stability of parent child & family factors. Paper presented at the Head Start Second National Research Conference, Washington, D.C.

Leik, R. K., Chalkley, M.A., & Duane G. (1991, June). A family systems model for parent enrichment in Head Start. Paper presented at the New Directions in Child & Family Research: Shaping Head Start in the 90's, Arlington, VA.

Levite, J. A. (1993). Involving fathers in Head Start: A framework for public policy & program development. Families in Society, 7(4), 4-19.

Zigler, E. (1994). Reshaping early childhood intervention to be a more effective weapon against poverty. American Journal of Community Psychology, 22(1), 37-48.

Delar K. Singh, Ph.D., Department of Education, Eastern Connecticut State University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Delar K. Singh, Department of Education, Eastern Connecticut State University, Willimantic, CT 06226
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Title Annotation:research finds need for continued Head Start assistance with mother competence
Author:Singh, Delar K.
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
Words:3245
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