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A Research Primer on Early Learning

Children’s early experiences can have a lifelong impact on learning, social and emotional development, and physical health, according to a robust body of research.

Parents or guardians are children’s first teachers. Singing, playing, counting, reading stories, and surrounding infants with love and nurturing help children’s brains develop in strong ways.

Other factors impact early brain development as well. Adverse fetal and early childhood experiences can result in physical and chemical disruptions in the brain with long-lasting consequences on learning and behavior as well as on physical and mental health, extensive research shows. A child’s early environment can even affect how much and when genes are expressed. Significant adversity – including poverty, abuse, and neglect – can threaten health and development.

Ground-breaking work on the impact of adverse childhood experiences –called ACEs — came out of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Impact Experiences Study conducted in the 1990s. It found such experiences are common and that the more ACEs an individual goes through, the greater the risk to health and well-being, including depression, drug use, liver disease, and poor academic achievement, among other outcomes.

But helping children develop resilience can overcome the effects and research is now targeting ways to effectively counter toxic stress.

And indeed, the evidence for the benefits for early childhood education is strong in the development of social and emotional skills. The earliest research showing such substantiation came from two seminal randomized-control longitudinal trials from the 1970s, known as the Carolina Abecedarian Project and the HighScope Perry Preschool Project. Both followed low-income children through their lives to measure the impact of high-quality early preschool on their lives.

The two experiments are still resulting in positive outcomes, including on long-term health, as the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman demonstrates.

The outcomes show children enrolled in these high-quality programs were more likely to finish school, to earn more, and were less likely to commit crime, do drugs or get pregnant at a young age, among other positive outcomes.

But what about academic performance?

Performance gaps between low-income and high-income children take root early, and students who start kindergarten behind tend to stay behind, shows research based on the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

Early childhood education programs can change that, some research suggests. Studies of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Head Start program, as well as efforts in Boston and New Jersey, demonstrate some academic success for participants in early childhood education programs as the children progress through elementary school and even middle school in two of the studies.

However, not all the research indicates future academic benefits for preschool students. The Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K program study by Vanderbilt University researchers, for instance, found the academic gains for participants in the program for 4-year-olds began to fade by first grade and disappeared by third grade. Other research also shows academic fadeout after participating in many early learning programs, although questions remain about why it occurs.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution questions the academic benefits from the growing push for state-funded preK programs. He suggests this policy approach risks diverting resources and attention from other strategies that may prove more effective with young children, such as supporting families.