Program Outcomes for Children



From birth on, children’s intellectual development is one of the most important processes that will affect their success in school and in later life. Through a process called cognitive development, children learn how to adapt to their environment.  As they experience new things, children accept and integrate the new information, and their thinking abilities increase (Nuttall, Romero & Kalesnik, 1992).  In short, cognitive development is the age-appropriate development of a collection of measurable mental abilities, including the ability to think, remember, solve problems and make decisions (Harris, 1993). 

Academic and Functional Literacy Model

Many important cognitive skills begin developing well before children begin formal schooling.  Through recent advances in medical technology, we have learned that much of the brain’s development actually happens well before the child enters school.  Based on a child’s experiences, brain cells make connections with other cells.  The connections help the brain remember what it has experienced and process the same information more quickly and completely the next time.  Most of this connection formation happens during the first 3 years of life.  After about age 3, the brain keeps track of the connections it uses.  Connections that are used regularly become stronger, and connections that are used only infrequently eventually wither and die.  By about age 10, most of the brain’s basic wiring is in place.  This basic brain wiring helps determine a child’s later academic skills (DeBord, 1997; Shore, 1997).  Thus, providing enriching experiences to very young children can have important effects on later academic functioning.

Because cognitive skills are a crucial aspect of children’s development, academic and functional literacy are important components of the National Center for Educational Outcomes (NCEO) model of children’s outcomes (Ysseldyke & Thurlow, 1993). Academic literacy, the ability to successfully master the types of material taught in most school curricula, is a sub-area of cognitive development for children of school age.  Most of the intellectual growth that occurs during formal education can be classified as improvements in academic literacy.

Because academic success is an important predictor of many behaviors in later life, improvements in academic literacy may be important outcomes of a successful 4-H or State Strengthening community project.  However, academic literacy is not a perfect predictor of life success.  Functional literacy, or the ability to succeed in critical life pursuits such as employment, is an equally important outcome of educational programming.  Many of the outcomes included in this domain — including communication and problem solving — are skills necessary for both school success and success in later life.

Many internal and external factors affect the development of children’s academic and functional literacy skills (Schickedanz, 1995).  Important influences include personal and social skills, family and social-cultural background, and developmental and educational history (Nuttall, Romero & Kalesnik, 1992).  Children’s feelings about learning and how they perceive themselves in academic situations have an enormous impact on their academic development (Hamachek, 1995).  Specifically, children who have a strong belief in their own abilities, good goal setting strategies, self-motivation and educational ambitions are more likely to be successful academically than children who do not have these beliefs (Bandura, 1993, Benard, 1991; Skinner, Wellborn, & Connell, 1990).  Parental participation is also an important contributor.  Community programs that help to systematically involve parents in their children’s school bolster children’s chances of succeeding academically, especially if both mothers and fathers are included (Nord, Brimhall, & West, 1997).

It is also important to recognize that cognitive development, including the development of academic and functional literacy, happens in conjunction with development in other domains.  At the same time that a child is developing skills that form the foundations of academic success and literacy, that same child is simultaneously developing personal knowledge, social interaction skills, a sense of responsibility, and many other crucial skills that will make him or her a well-rounded individual.  Learning is a social process.  Very often, children and adults participate in a process called guided learning.  Adults help children organize a new problem, give hints on how the problem could be solved, and encourage the children to use their existing skills to solve the problem.  Children are more likely to increase their problem solving skills when they participate in this type of guided learning (Freund, 1990; Gauvain & Rogoff, 1989).  Measuring other influences, such as beliefs and social skills, in addition to academic success can provide community project evaluators with a more complete and accurate profile of children’s growth.

Outcome Components

According to the NCEO conceptual model (Ysseldyke & Thurlow, 1993) the outcome domain of academic and functional literacy includes four different outcome components.  Although the model was designed to be used in public education settings, the outcomes are equally relevant for State Strengthening and other community-based programs seeking to improve the lives of children.

The following outcomes are included in academic and functional literacy:

  • Demonstrates competence in communication
  • Demonstrates competence in problem-solving
  • Demonstrates competence in pre-academic and academic skills
  • Demonstrates competence in using technology

One important goal of many State Strengthening projects, 4-H programs, and other community-based enrichment programs is to provide children at risk with activities and programs that enhance their cognitive abilities.  Such enrichment activities can help many children become more resilient in the face of multiple risk factors.  Early intervention with children who are having initial difficulty in school reduces their likelihood of dropping out of high school and increases their chances for successful long-term employment as an adult (Nuttall, Romero & Kalesnik, 1992). 

However, successful programs to improve academic skills must also take into account many other factors — including beliefs, motivation, and family support — that can affect children’s school performance.  By providing experiences that promote confidence and self-esteem in children, community-based programs can help enhance their academic confidence and thus their performance in school. 


Bandura, A.  (1993).  Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning.  Educational Psychologist, 20, 117 - 148.

Benard, B.  (1996).  Resilience research:  A foundation for youth development.  New Designs for Youth Development, 12, 4 - 10.

DeBord, K.  (1997).  Brain development. [Extension Publication].  Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.

Freund, L. S.  (1990).  Maternal regulation of children’s problem-solving behavior and its impact on children’s performance.  Child Development, 61, 113 - 126.

Gauvain, M. & Rogoff, B.  (1989).  Collaborative problem solving and children’s planning skills.  Developmental Psychology, 25, 139 - 151.

Hamachek, D.  (1995). Self-concept and school achievement: Interaction dynamics and a tool for assessing the self-concept component.  Journal of Counseling and Development, 73, 419 - 425.

Harris, C. A.  (1993).  Child Development.  St Paul:  West Publishing Company.

Johnson, D. S.  (1981).  Naturally acquired learned helplessness:  The relationship of school failure to achievement behavior, attributions, and self-concept.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 73, 174 - 180.

Nord, C. W., Brimhall, D., & West, J.  (1997).  Fathers’ involvement in their children’s schools.  Washington, DC.  National Center for Educational Statistics, U. S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Nuttall, E. V., Romero, I. & Kalesnik, J.  (1992).  Assessing and screening preschoolers.  Boston:  Allyn and Bacon.
 Schickedanz, J. A.  (1995).  Family socialization and academic achievement.  Journal of Education, 177, 17 - 38.

Shore, R.  (1997).  Rethinking the brain: New insights into early development.  New York: Families and Work Institute.

Skinner, E. A., Wellborn, J. G. & Connell, J. P.  (1990).  What it takes to do well in school and whether I’ve got it:  A process model of perceived control and children’s engagement and achievement in school.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 22 - 32.

Outcome Components:


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