Maria Montessori could not have said it better: “Early childhood education is the key to the betterment of society.” Though Montessori made this pronouncement nearly a century ago, her conviction rings true today and is supported by a number of studies.
The Opportunity Project (TOP), in an unnamed Midwestern city, was one such study. Its purpose was to determine the long-term outcomes of economically disadvantaged children who received the intervention of a quality early childhood education program. These children were studied in tandem with a control group from a local school district. The children from both groups were followed from kindergarten through grade 4. (1)
Objective measures demonstrated higher rates of success among TOP students than the control group. By the fourth grade, the TOP students had scored “significantly higher” on math and reading tests. They had “significantly higher” attendance rates. They also had “significantly fewer” discipline referrals. (1)
Subjectively, the TOP students also seemed to outpace the control group. Teachers of both groups completed questionnaires each year through the fourth grade. The results demonstrated that the TOP students used more appropriate behaviors, surpassed peers socially, and were more emotionally mature than their classmates who had not received a TOP early intervention. (1)
The period between birth and age five is recognized by child development experts as a time of immense opportunity and also vulnerability. During this time, connections among neurons are being formed. (2) Evidence shows that brain development is rapid during this short period of time and impacts five domains: physical growth, cognitive development, social and emotional maturing, language acquisition, and self-help skills. Children are negatively impacted when stimulation and nurturing are lacking. (7)
Development of the brain is believed to be influenced by genes, the environment, and the interaction between the two. Trauma or adversity in a child’s early years can impact brain development. (2) However, evidence also demonstrates that early interventions through a quality preschool program can bring improvements. Children who receive these interventions are more likely to be successful later in school and in life.
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Advocates believe that early education primes disadvantaged children to develop into successful adults, with higher earnings, better health, and lower levels of welfare dependence and crime. Another well-known study called the Perry Preschool Program studied 123 at-risk, low-income preschool students in Ypsilanti, Michigan. (3)
The students were randomly split into two groups, one which received a high-quality preschool education, and the control group which did not. The Perry Project provided instruction in communication and math skills as well as a focus on “non-cognitive” skills including sustaining attention and working cooperatively with others. Project leaders also went into the homes of the student participants and worked with the parents, offering encouragement and instruction to provide stimulating activities at home. (6)
This longitudinal study, begun in the 1960s, followed students to age 50. The results were unequivocal: 65 percent of the first group graduated from high school compared to 45 percent from the control group. In addition, those in the first group were more likely to be employed, raise their own children and own a home or car. Those in the first group were also less likely to be arrested or use drugs. (3)
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Of course, it is not just providing early education that makes a difference, it is providing high- quality early education. What exactly does this mean? While schools come in many shapes and sizes, a few common denominators do exist. Read the features of a quality preschool below.
The teachers and support staff
The instructors or caregivers should be well trained, and the child-to-staff ratio should be small.
Warm and responsive interactions need to take place between the children and teachers in order for secure attachments to form. These attachments help lay the groundwork for future, healthy relationships.
The teachers should engage the kids in age-appropriate learning strategies.
Teachers should encourage independence and create language-rich environments.
Teachers should receive ongoing support and training. (4)
The physical environment
Stimulating and appropriate materials should be provided and organized in a way that encourages independence and exploration.
The space should be arranged to support interaction between the children, role playing, and literacy skill progression.
Children should have access to outdoor space. (4)
Aside from the tremendous benefits individuals receive from early education, society also benefits. According to UNICEF, the cost-benefit ratio of early interventions show that for every $1 spent, the returns are four to five times the investment. (7)
Now it appears that the return may be even greater. Researchers, including Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, are taking another look at the Perry Preschool Project.
The project was started to increase the academic scores of disadvantaged children. Using this measure, the project was unsuccessful - the data did not demonstrate an uptick in academic scores as the children moved on to elementary school. As mentioned above, benefits did appear when the participants approached adulthood.
In addition to the success documented in the participants’ adult years, evidence is emerging of a new and exciting benefit. The children of the participants are now being studied, and it has been reported that they are doing better than the children of the participants in the control group. The participants’ children have better social and emotional skills, are more likely to be healthy, earn more, graduate from high school and go on to college. The benefits of early intervention have been passed on to the next generation. (6)
Researchers suggest that the original participants gained the skills necessary to form healthy families and maintain a stable income. The study may also demonstrate that it is ”non-cognitive skills” that are most important in determining success in life, skills like resilience and grit. (6)
“It is the gift that keeps on giving,” said Heckman in an interview with National Public Radio.
Whether that gift is given in Ypsilanti, Michigan or Arusha, Tanzania, generations of impoverished people stand to benefit from early education.
Impoverished children in Arusha, Tanzania receive early education at Saving Grace School.