Immediate Influence

The importance of early childhood education

Parent construct: Effective Schools

High-quality preschool education can improve the life prospects of poor children.1 2 Once children reach the age of one, they can benefit greatly from being in a high-quality preschool or daycare setting. Researchers have done careful experiments in which they compared young children who received preschool education with those who did not receive such an education. Three British researchers, Bozhena Zoritch, Ian Roberts, and Ann Oakley, searched nearly 1,000 publications and found eight studies that had randomly assigned children to get or not get preschool education. By randomizing children, they could be confident that any differences in their later success were due to being in a preschool.

The studies showed that preschool education improved children’s IQs, helped them do better in school, and even reduced the chances of delinquency when they were adolescents. Children who received preschool education were less likely to be held back in their grade and less likely to need special education. Teachers rated children who had been in preschool as more motivated when they were six to nine years old and noted that they valued school more when they were 15.

One study—the Perry Pre-School Study—followed children until they were adults. They found that children who had been in the preschool were more likely than those who had not to have a job and to go to college and were less likely to be on welfare or be arrested. The girls who were in the program were less likely to get pregnant when they were teens and were more likely to graduate from high school.

The Nobel Laureate in economics James Heckman and his colleagues Rob Grunewald and Arthur Reynolds looked at the economic benefit of early childhood education.3 They looked at three preschool programs for which there was good data. For those three programs, the total benefit ranged from $73,381 to $276,381 per child! In terms of the return on investing in preschool education the programs, for every dollar invested the return ranged from $3.78 to $17.07. Heckman and his colleagues point out that investing in early childhood education for poor children contributes to the productivity to the work force and that it will make a better contribution to economic development than investments in sports stadiums, office towers, or tax subsidies for business relocations.

Key Features of High Quality Preschool Education

High-quality preschools and daycare centers have skilled teachers, good child to adult ratios and group size, safe facilities, a well-planned curriculum, lots of books and reading activities, and many engaging toys.

Andrew Mashburn of the University of Virginia has provided a helpful summary of the research on what the most effective preschool education is like.4 Children learn the most in settings that have a lot of positive interactions between children and between adults and children. These settings keep negative interactions to a minimum, are sensitive to children’s academic and emotional needs, and have high regard for children’s perspectives. These settings organize activities so that lots of time is spent in learning activities in which sound instructional practices are used. Behavior problems are kept to a minimum, but organizing activities to prevent them and richly reinforcing prosocial and cooperative behavior.

Adults do a lot to encourage children’s use of language. They listen to them and talk about what the child is doing at the moment. They extend their knowledge of the current activity by introducing new words or showing the child how relationships among the things they are playing with. For example, “That’s a car, it has wheels, and doors. Do you ride to school in a car? What color is your car?” They promote children’s problem solving. And they encourage “higher order thinking.” For example, they might teach a child that a car is one kind of “vehicle.” “Other kinds are trucks, buses, and planes.”

There is solid evidence that preschools and other child care settings that do these things can greatly improve children’s readiness to learn once they get to kindergarten. These benefits are greatest for the children with the greatest social or economic risks.


  1. Gorey, K.M. (2001). Early childhood education: A meta-analytic affirmation of the short- and long-term benefits of educational opportunity. School Psychology Quarterly, 16, 9-30.  

  2. Zoritch, B., Roberts, I., & Oakley, A. (2000). Day care for preschool children. Cochrane. Database of Systematic Reviews, 3, (Rep. No. CD000564).  

  3. Heckman, J., Grunewald, R., & Reynolds, A. (2006). The dollars and cents of investing early: cost-benefit analysis in early care and education. Zero to Three, 26, 10-17.  

  4. Mashburn, A. (2008).Evidence for creating, expanding, designing, and improving high quality preschool programs. In L.M Justice, & C. Vukelich (eds.). Achieving excellence in preschool literacy instruction. New York: Guilford.