The Impact of Early Childhood Experiences
A growing body of evidence ties experiences in early childhood to health and well-being throughout life. Family and neighborhood resources and other social and economic factors shape infants’ and toddlers’ physiological, emotional, and behavioral development, creating either a favorable foundation for lifelong health, or adversity from the start.
The effects are often most powerful among the most disadvantaged children. Children in impoverished families are prone to chronic stress that can contribute to mental and physical problems later in life, such as depression, anxiety, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Fortunately, the evidence from the past 40 years also suggests that early intervention can disrupt this cycle that leads from social disadvantage to health disadvantage. One such intervention is high-quality early childhood programs, which provide comprehensive and accessible resources for maternal and infant health, education, and parent-child relationship support. Children from low-income families who participate in these programs experience a range of long-term health-related benefits:
- Individuals from one program, the Carolina Abecedarian Project, who were followed from early childhood to age 35, showed lower prevalence for major risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic disease, notably diabetes.
- Participants in the Abecedarian Project and two other programs (the Chicago Child-Parent Centers and the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program) were less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors in adulthood, such as frequent drug use or smoking.
- High-quality programs have also been linked to positive social outcomes that affect long-term health. For example, participation in the Abecedarian Project has been linked to gains in college attendance and skilled employment, while the High/Scope project has been linked to higher employment rates and income.
Benefits of a Whole-Child Approach
The traditional view of education has focused on academics. Contemporary research has shown the benefits of a more holistic or “whole child” approach that addresses children’s social, behavioral, physical, and emotional health, as well as their academic potential.
For preschool children especially, the whole-child approach requires reaching out to the home. Many parents with limited resources need assistance to reduce toxic stress in the home, characterized by factors like long-term neglect, abuse, exposure to violence, and/or the stresses of poverty. Even middle-class parents—especially single parents—often face major obstacles to optimal parenting. Many successful early childhood programs therefore include support and training for parents and caregivers, such as: involving them in center-based activities, providing referrals to social services, helping them find work or job training, and helping them to develop self-efficacy and life skills.
The whole-child approach also goes beyond academic readiness to emphasize the acquisition of social and emotional competencies. Strong social and emotional skills predict favorable social, behavioral, and academic adjustment throughout childhood and beyond. For example, a 20-year retrospective study suggests that kindergarten students who display social competence, such as sharing or cooperating, may be more likely to attain higher education and well-paying jobs, while children with weaker social competency are more likely to drop out of high school, abuse drugs and alcohol, or need government assistance.
Fortunately, social-emotional learning programs can help instill these skills. A meta-analysis of 213 school-based social-emotional learning programs for children and teenagers ages 5 to 18 found that participants demonstrate significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes and behavior, and an 11-percentile gain in academic performance.
While these programs come at some public cost, so do the consequences of weak social and emotional competency, like public services for health, public assistance, and criminal justice. One major study of six prominent social-emotional learning programs for children from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade found that for every dollar invested in these programs, there is an average return of 11 dollars.
While social-emotional learning is a relatively new trend in elementary school and beyond, “early childhood educators have long recognized the importance of supporting early social-emotional learning,” writes Ann Epstein, a researcher and Curriculum Developer of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation.
In 2014, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America recommended making investing in America’s youngest children a high priority. This would require a significant shift in spending priorities; currently the United States ranks 25th of 29 industrialized countries in public investments in early childhood education. Specifically, the Commission recommended:
- Create stronger quality standards for early childhood development programs, link funding to program quality, and guarantee access by funding enrollment for all low-income children under age 5 in programs meeting these standards by 2025. The Commission noted that only a small fraction of low-income children are in high-quality programs. They aren’t always available, and when they are, either space is limited or parents are unable to afford them.
- Help parents who struggle to provide healthy, nurturing experiences for their children through programs such as integrated child-parent services.
- Invest in research and innovation around early childhood programs.
Many of these programs have focused on improving social and emotional learning, and developing “social competence” traits like empathy and sharing in children as young as kindergarten age. Studies have shown that skills acquired in social and emotional learning contexts can increase a child’s chances of attaining high-level jobs and advanced degrees.