Quality Early Learning: Why it Matters

The evidence is clear. And mounting. Research over the past 50 years has shown the critical importance of quality learning for children from birth to age five.  

brain development in the early years

During the first five years of life, 90% of a child’s brain architecture develops, forming the foundation for all future learning. A child’s earliest experiences – especially positive interactions with the adults in their lives – stimulate and strengthen these neural connections as they are being formed. Several research projects in the early education space have explored children’s academic readiness and performance resulting from differences in quality early learning experiences.

The 30 Million Word Gap

The well-known study “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” by researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley discovered significant differences in the number and quality of words heard by young children from high-income, middle-income, low-income and welfare families. The study extrapolated that a child in a low-income environment will hear 30 million FEWER words over the first four years of his or her life than a child in a high-income environment. Further, the study found that approximately 90% or more of the words used by the children at age three were derived from their parents’ vocabularies, and that the children’s conversation styles and speech patterns were remarkably similar to those of their primary caregivers.

Perry Preschool Project

High-risk three- and four-year-old children participated in the Perry Preschool Project in the 1960s, in which half of the children were enrolled in a high-quality preschool program and half were not. The study followed the participants’ progress through age 40 and found significant differences in the outcomes of the two groups. Participants in the preschool program were more likely to have graduated from high school; completed more schooling; required less special education services; experienced fewer teen pregnancies; were less likely to have been incarcerated or arrested for violent crimes; earned higher wages; and were less likely to have received government assistance.

Abecedarian Project

Another oft-cited early childhood education project studied children younger than Perry’s preschoolers. In the 1970s, the Abecedarian Project was conducted with infants and followed their progress through age 35. Children in the project’s experimental group received high-quality child care from infancy through age five. At school-age, the participant children had higher IQs than the control group, scored higher on achievement tests and were less likely to be retained in grade or referred for special education. As adults, the participants were more likely to have attained more years of education; more likely to attend college and obtain a degree; less likely to have been teen parents; and more likely to have stable employment.

Early Learning. Long-Term Success

With this and other research demonstrating the long-term advantages of high-quality early learning experiences in a child’s earliest years, the case is clear. The question for parents and educators becomes, then, what does quality early learning look like and how can we achieve it? Collaborative for Children’s quality improvement programs are rooted in substantiated evidence, and strive to implement proven best practices in our own community. Together with our partners, we aim not only to improve quality early education in the 13-county region but also to increase access and demand for quality programs. Our children deserve nothing less.