Why Investments in Early Childhood Work
The data show that the greatest challenges facing our country – from school dropout rates, to crime to rising health-care costs, to the necessity of competing in the global marketplace – can only be met by focusing on the development of all our children, beginning at birth.
To the Ounce of Prevention Fund, the "achievement gap" is not a metaphor. It is a social outcome that we can see and measure. Research shows that the achievement gap appears long before children reach kindergarten – in fact is can become evident as early as age nine months. And at-risk children who don't receive a high-quality early childhood education are:
- 25% more likely to drop out of school
- 40% more likely to become a teen parent
- 50% more likely to be placed in special education
- 60% more likely to never attend college
- 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime
Early childhood programs are the most cost-effective way to ensure the healthy development of children in poverty and offer the greatest returns to society.
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Language and Literacy in Early Childhood
How parents and caregivers speak to kids significantly affects I.Q., literacy, and academic success later in life, according to University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley. Their study found that the number of words and encouragements and the breadth of vocabulary heard by a child during the first three years of life can dramatically affect language development and I.Q. Hart and Risley made close observations of 42 one- and two-year olds and their families for more than two years. From those observations, the researchers estimated children in professional families hear approximately 11 million words per year; while children in working class families hear approximately 6 million, and children in families receiving public assistance hear approximately 3 million words annually.
For more information on the study, read: Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.
From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Young children who lack at least one loving and consistent caregiver in the earliest years may suffer severe and long-lasting development problems. This landmark study of scientific brain research shows environmental stress, even among infants and toddlers, can interfere with the proper development of neural connections inside the brain essential to a child's proper social and emotional development. This report recommends that early childhood programs balance their focus on literacy and numerical skills with comparable attention to the emotional and social development of all children.
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development was published in 2000 by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
Joint attention refers to the shared focus that conversational partners – an infant and her caregiver – have on an object and topic. Infants and young children whose parents engage in more joint attention have larger vocabularies than children whose parents engage in less joint attention. High-quality child care environments, where caregivers practice joint attention and are responsive to the cues of infants and toddlers, have been shown to be tied to higher rates of language acquisition.
To learn more about the research behind joint attention, read Foundations: How States Can Plan and Fund Programs for Babies and Toddlers from the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
Secure Attachment and Continuity of Care
Attachment -– the security, confidence, and trust that infants and toddlers have with the adults responsible for their care -– is the framework within which babies develop their growing ability to regulate emotions and behavior. Babies thrive when they are securely attached to their mother, father, or primary caregiver who knows and responds consistently and reliably to their unique personalities. Infants and toddlers who are not securely attached are likely to become preschoolers unable to control their behaviors and kindergartners who have difficulty engaging in the process of learning. Recognizing the importance of secure attachment, the Ounce of Prevention Fund implements a continuity of care model at Educare. This model minimizes the disruptions that children experience by keeping infants and toddlers with the same classroom team of teachers until they transition to preschool.
To learn more about the research behind secure attachment and continuity of care, read Secure Attachment from the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
Link between Early Learning and Health
While much attention and effort has been directed at addressing the widening achievement gap in the United States, children growing up in poverty face an equally pervasive and related health gap. By and large, they have markedly worse health than their higher-income peers. This gap appears early in life and builds over time. Science suggests that adverse early life experiences and environments—prenatally and in a child's first years—can contribute to the health gap, leaving biological imprints on the child's developing body and brain that can have strong and lasting effects.
The good news is, research points us to a critical strategy in narrowing the health gap and giving all children a strong chance at a healthy future. We can ensure that every child has access to high-quality early childhood programs, including early education and home visiting.
To learn more about the large body of evidence linking early learning and health, read Start Early to Build a Healthy Future from the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
The Abecedarian Project
The Abecedarian Project demonstrated that young children who receive high-quality early education from infancy to age five do better in reading and math and are more likely to stay in school longer, graduate from high school, and attend a four-year college. Children who participated in the early intervention program posted higher cognitive test scores and tended to wait longer to have their first child. Conducted by Dr. Craig Ramey, one of the nation's leading early childhood researchers, this was the first study to track participants in an early learning program from infancy to age 21. Based in North Carolina, this study tracked 111 low-income African-American families. Half of participants were randomly assigned to receive full-time early learning intervention services starting at infancy; the other received no educational services.
High/Scope Perry Preschool
By age 40, adults who participated as 3- and 4-year-olds in quality preschool were more likely to have graduated from high school, held a job, made higher earnings, and committed fewer crimes than those who didn't attend, according to this seminal study. In 1962, researchers began following 123 high-risk 3- and 4-year-olds and their families in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Nearly 60 of those children were randomly assigned to a high-quality early learning program; the rest received no preschool.
Chicago Parent-Child Centers
This study demonstrates that young children who receive high-quality early education do better in school academically, are less likely to drop out of high school, be arrested, repeat grades, or be placed in special education services. In addition to the increased earnings capacity by those who participated in the program, the study found that society saves more than $7 for every $1 invested in preschool. Conducted by Dr. Arthur Reynolds of the University of Wisconsin, the study followed 989 students enrolled in 20 Chicago Parent-Child Centers beginning at age three and a comparison group of 550 other eligible children who did not participate in the program until the children reached eighth grade.
Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project
Children enrolled in Early Head Start performed better on measures of cognition, social-emotional, and language functioning than their peers who were not enrolled, according to this landmark study of the federal Early Head Start program. The study also found that children who participated in Early Head Start (from birth to age three) and later programs (from age 3 to 5) had the most positive outcomes. More than 3,000 children and families at 17 sites were randomly assigned to receive Early Head Start services or to be in a control group in 1996 for this Administration for Children and Families study.
In evidence-based home visiting programs, trained parent coaches provide child-development and parenting information to help young parents create safe, stimulating home environments; model positive and language-rich relationships; and connect families to medical, dental, mental-health, and other supports. Research studies have shown that home visiting programs increase children's literacy and high school graduation rates, as well as how much parents read to their children. In addition, such programs increase positive birth outcomes for children, improve the likelihood that families have access to a doctor, and decrease rates of child abuse and neglect.
Read more about the research on home visiting programs in Home Visitation: Assessing Progress, Managing Expectations by the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
The primary focus of the doula is to support the parent-child relationship. This focus enables an early and strong parent-child attachment to be the foundation for the child's health and development and eventual success in school. Research demonstrates the link between doulas and higher rates of breastfeeding, decreased rates of Cesarean section deliveries, decreased length of labor, improved mother-child interactions, and decreased evidence of maternal depression.
Read more about research on doula programs in The First Days of Life: Adding Doulas to Early Childhood Programs by the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
Economics of Human Potential
Investing in quality early learning programs is the most efficient way to affect school and life success and to reduce social expenditures later, according to research by Prof. James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics from the University of Chicago. Returns are greatest for the most at-risk children. For that population in particular, quality early learning programs can result in reduced costs later on special education, remedial classes, and even incarceration. Heckman's research also shows early interventions for disadvantaged children "raise the quality of the workforce, enhance the productivity of schools and reduce crime, teenage pregnancy, and welfare dependency. They raise earnings and promote social attachment." Heckman contends, "The real question is how to use available funds wisely. The best evidence supports the policy prescription: Invest in the very young."
Early Childhood Development on a Large Scale
Arthur J. Rolnick of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis writes that, "Careful academic research demonstrates that tax dollars spent on early childhood development provide extraordinary returns compared with investments in the public, and even private, sector. The potential return from a focused, high-quality early childhood development program is as high as 16 percent per year. Some of these benefits are private gains for the children involved in the form of higher wages later in life. But the broader economy also benefits because individuals who participate in high-quality early childhood development programs have greater skills than they otherwise would, and they're able to contribute productively to their local economies."