A recent study released on Tuesday shows that children who attended high-quality preschools in North Carolina were significantly less likely to require special education services in the third grade. These findings were from a longitudinal study following children from at-risk families from birth to the end of third grade. Two programs, More at Four and Smart Start, both publicly funded programs in North Carolina, aim to provide high-quality child care to 4-year-olds living in poverty and to improve the quality and delivery of child care and preschool services for children from birth to 5, respectively. The focus on this developmental period of life is reflective of much developmental research showing that significant cognitive, social, and emotional development occurs across this timeframe and thus, it is a critical period to support. Furthermore, educational psychologist Jeffrey Liew highlights that cognitive and social-emotional development in early childhood can be heavily influenced by teaching efforts targeting those skills.
These findings evidence the importance of a high-quality early childhood education. Between the years 1997 and 2010, over 127,000 students were serviced by the North Carolina preschool programs. As reported in Thinking P-12: The school board role in pre-k education, appropriate class sizes, teacher qualifications, and teacher training, among others, constitute markers that differentiate low from high-quality programming.
Although the results from this study are encouraging, it is important for readers to not misinterpret the results. Furthermore, the study uses maternal education (at time of the childbirth) as a proxy for socioeconomic status (SES). While maternal education is an indicator of SES, the inclusion of additional at-risk markers, such as household income and whether or not the parent(s) are employed typically provides a more comprehensive picture.
That high-quality education in preschool reduced special education placement years later in third grade just reinforces the many reasons why addressing issues early can benefit children throughout life. Similar to the foundation of a house, early childhood represents the bedrock of development; when this foundation is built poorly or weakened for whatever reason (e.g., toxic stress, poverty, neglect), the integrity of the entire building is at risk. Through the implementation of high-quality education, these positive experiences can help to “repair the cracks.” As reported in our Research on Pre-K, children who are able to attend high-quality preschool programs, like the High/Scope Perry Preschool program, for example, tend to graduate high school, demonstrate higher achievement at age 14, and earn more income at age 40 compared to those who did not attend similar pre-kindergarten programs.
In conclusion, this study reinforces what we already know: high-quality early childhood education is one of the best ways to support optimal development. This study highlights that when cognitive, social, and emotional problems are addressed early through, children can stand to benefit the most before special education is required.