Substantial and long-term evaluations of support for families of preschool children have revealed three key processes that improve children’s well-being—as measured by school achievement (test scores), school attainment (years of schooling), social and emotional development, and mental health and health behavior.
The first process is improved “cognitive-scholastic advantage”. Preschool children with better cognitive, language, numeracy and social skills are better prepared for school, which in turn enhances their confidence, learning, good behavior and commitment to school, and raises teacher expectations. Such children are more likely to obtain high school diplomas, college degrees and steady employment as adults.
The second process is improved family support. When parents have greater skills and more positive attitudes and expectations, and when they are more involved in their children’s education both at home and at school, the children spend more time learning, and they have more motivation and higher expectations for attainment and success. Such children also experience improved social engagement and less maltreatment. Early parent involvement in education also tends to lead to their further involvement later on.
The third process is improved school quality and support. Early support tends to lead parents to seek better schools for their children, which in turn brings higher expectations and the influence of more prosocial peer norms. It also leads to less frequent changing of schools by a child, which is known to disrupt learning.
Many programs that have been evaluated have shown the same processes. They include the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, the Abecedarian Project, High/Scope Perry Preschool, the Cornell Consortium, Head Start and the Nurse-Family Partnership.
These programs have been shown to be highly cost-effective. Abecedarian showed a return of about 3 dollars per dollar invested; for Child-Parent Centers the figure is 7 to 11 dollars, and for Perry Preschool, 9 to 16 dollars. A meta-analysis of 49 early years programs found an average return of about 4 dollars per dollar invested.
The programs showing high economic returns are high in quality, in that they have small classes and low student/teacher ratios, well-trained and well compensated staff, teaching practices that fully engage children in learning, and provide family services. Many current state and district preschool programs are not high in quality. As the evidence from effective practices and the processes described above are incorporated into programs, improvements should continue to occur.
Header photo: MGCAA. Creative Commons.