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OPINION: We don’t start high-quality early childhood programs soon enough, research shows

The long-term and multi-generational effects of the supports that children get during the first three years

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A growing body of research in recent years has made clear that investing in high-quality early childhood development yields tremendous dividends in terms of academic achievement and outcomes later in life.

Over the past several years, more states than ever have invested in public preschool programs. But programs that support children beginning at age 3 or 4 are only one piece of the early education puzzle.

The reality is that we need to start earlier. Healthy development starts with healthy births, and the need for high-quality supports for infants, toddlers and their families continues during the critical first three years.

Research by Nobel laureate economist James Heckman confirms what many early childhood advocates believe — the long-term effects of targeted, high-quality investments not only include lifelong academic, economic and social gains for disadvantaged children, but also better outcomes for their children and stronger families across multiple generations.

Related: Sending your boy to preschool is great for your grandson, new research shows

The study, taken together with Heckman’s previous research on the returns on investment in high-quality programs starting at birth, has important implications for early childhood policies across the country.

Professor Heckman’s latest analysis of the long-term impact of the Perry Preschool Project, an intensive program for disadvantaged African American children in Michigan in the 1960s that has become the model for high-quality early childhood programs, examines the midlife outcomes of Perry participants in their 50s.

This new study validated the findings of earlier research that showed children provided with high-quality early childhood experiences enjoyed significantly better education, health, behavior and employment outcomes when compared to children who did not. It also builds on the evidence showing the importance of a child’s earliest years when the brain develops rapidly, laying the foundation for future behavior, health and learning.

There’s an even greater impact when we look at the results within the broader context of what we know about Perry-inspired programs that treated children from prenatal to age 3. In an analysis of the long-term effects of two other high-quality early childhood programs that began at birth in North Carolina, Heckman and colleagues found significantly better outcomes in education, health, social behaviors and employment for participating children compared to children who were not enrolled or who received lower-quality alternatives.

Related: Kindergarten behavior predicts adult earning power

From the investment perspective, when compared to the 7 to 10 percent annual return on investment for every dollar spent on high-quality preschool programs for disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-old children, the analysis of high-quality comprehensive programs starting at birth found a 13 percent annual return on investment.

What is novel about the new Perry study is the finding of intergenerational effects. Strong positive outcomes were found that extended beyond the children themselves to their families. Perry participants were able to create stronger and more stable family environments and developmental supports for their children, who were less likely to be suspended from school or arrested, and more likely to enjoy good health, graduate from high school, attend and complete college and have full-time employment.

This research confirms the significant effects that improved family life has on child outcomes, regardless of housing location, and provides policymakers with the confidence they need to use high-quality early childhood education as an effective tool for strengthening families and fighting intergenerational poverty. The payoffs are exponential across generations.

ABC/CARE improved the economic prospects of treated children and their mothers, allowing the latter to enter the workforce and increase earnings while their children gained the foundational skills to make them more productive in the future workforce.

Related: To smooth transitions from home to pre-K to kindergarten, states must invest in every aspect of early ed

The research lends further evidence to the strategy of improving access to high-quality, comprehensive early childhood programs from birth to kindergarten in order to provide significantly better outcomes for the children, their siblings, our economy and society.

When we take advantage of the years when children’s brains are developing the fastest, they will be better prepared to succeed in school and life — and to strengthen our communities and workforce for generations to come.

This story about high-quality early childhood programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Gerry Cobb is director of the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, a project of the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation.

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Gerry Cobb

Gerry Cobb is the director of the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, a project of the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation. See Archive

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