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At a Glance

  • Adults who had participated in an extensive early childhood education program for children from low-income families attained higher educational levels than those who’d received other interventions.
  • The findings reinforce previous results showing that early intervention programs have the potential to improve participants’ health and well-being.

Early learning paves the way for learning at school and throughout life. What children learn in their first few years of life—and how they learn it—can have long-lasting effects on their success and health as children, teens, and adults.

The Child-Parent Centers (CPC) program in the Chicago Public School System provides intensive instruction in reading and math, combined with frequent educational field trips, from pre-kindergarten through third grade. The program also provides parents with job and parenting skills training, educational classes, and social services. In addition, the program encourages parents to volunteer in classrooms, assist with field trips, and participate in parenting support groups.

Previous studies showed that CPC graduates have higher incomes, lower rates of serious crime and incarceration, and lower rates of depression than those who participated in other early interventions. In a new analysis, a team led by Dr. Arthur Reynolds at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis studied educational outcomes in midlife for graduates of the program.

Education level affects many aspects of health. Adults with less education are more likely to adopt unhealthy habits like smoking. They’re also more likely to have high blood pressure, obesity, and mental health problems. Previous studies showed that support for children’s early learning can lead to higher test scores from preschool to age 21, better grades in reading and math, and a better chance of staying in school and going to college.

The researchers examined the 30-year progress of 1,539 children (989 who attended the CPC program and 550 children from randomly selected schools participating in other types of early intervention). They collected information from administrative records, schools, and families from birth through 35 years of age. The study was supported in part by NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Results were published online in JAMA Pediatrics on January 292018.

The researchers found that CPC graduates, whether they took part in preschool only or attended until second or third grade, completed more years of education than those who participated in other early intervention programs. Among those receiving an intervention in preschool, CPC participants were more likely to have achieved an associate’s degree or higher (15.7% vs. 10.7%), bachelor’s degree or higher (11% vs. 7.8%), and master’s degree or higher (4.2% vs. 1.5%).

CPC graduates who attended the program through second or third grade had even higher educational gains than their counterparts: associate’s degree or higher (18.5% vs. 12.5%), bachelor’s degree or higher (14.3% vs. 8.2%), and master’s degree or higher (5.9% vs. 2.3%).

“This study suggests that a high-quality, early childhood intervention program, especially one that extends through third grade, can have benefits well into adult life,” says Dr. James A. Griffin of the Child Development Branch at NICHD.