Research Reveals the Importance of High-Quality Early Childhood Education

EarlyYearsFeatureChildren in high-quality early childhood education are buffered from changes in family income

While losses in family income predict increases in behaviour problems for many children, attending high-quality early childhood education and care centres offers some protection against families’ economic declines, according to a new study out of Norway. In Norway, publicly subsidised high-quality early childhood education and care is available to all children, from low-income to affluent, starting at age 1. The study found that children who don’t take part in such programs have more early behaviour problems when their families’ income drops.

The study was conducted by researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, the Norwegian Center for Child Behavioral Development, and Boston College. It appears in the journal Child Development.

“Our study adds to the growing body of evidence supporting the potential power of universal access to high-quality early childhood education and care for improving children’s well-being and growth,” according to Henrik Daae Zachrisson, senior researcher at the Norwegian Center for Child Behavioral Development, who was with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health at the time of the study, and Eric Dearing, associate professor at Boston College and senior researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Child Behavioural Development, who conducted the study.

When families’ incomes (adjusted for family size and yearly median income in Norway) decreased, their children’s behaviour problems increased, the study found. Conversely, when families’ incomes increased, their children’s behaviour problems decreased. These patterns were strongest in low-income families, so fluctuations in income seemed to matter most for those with the least. Children in both low- and middle-income households who attended high-quality centres had stable, low levels of internalising problems (such as withdrawal and anxiety) regardless of whether their families experienced worsening or improving economic circumstances.

The researchers drew data from a longitudinal study of more than 75,000 children and their families who participated in assessments from birth through age 3. Family income data were taken from public tax records. When children were 1 and a half and 3 years old, mothers reported on children’s aggression and non-compliance (externalising problems), withdrawal and anxiety (internalising problems), and attendance at an early childhood and care centre. Children who did not attend a centre or were not cared for by a parent or family member were typically cared for by a family day care, nanny, or outdoor nursery (i.e., monitored playground); these settings are unregulated. At 36 months, almost 88 percent of the children were in an early childhood education and care centre.

“Even in a context such as Norway, which has relatively little income inequality and relatively strong social supports for families, children in low-income families still appear to be sensitive to acute fluctuations in income, a finding that’s also been demonstrated in the United States,” according to Zachrisson and Dearing. “However, children in regulated, high-quality early childhood education and care centres appear to be protected against the negative effects of changes in income within families when it comes to internalising problems.”

In other research…

Researchers have found that early intervention could boost education levels.

Taking steps from an early age to improve childhood education skills could raise overall population levels of academic achievement by as much as 5%, and reduce socioeconomic inequality in education by 15%, according to international research led by the University of Adelaide.

In a study now published in the journal Child Development, researchers from the University of Adelaide’s School of Population Health and colleagues at the University of Bristol in the UK have modelled the likely outcomes of interventions to improve academic skills in children up to school age. They considered what effect these interventions would have on education by age 16.

Lead author Dr Catherine Chittleborough from the University of Adelaide says socioeconomic disadvantage is a known risk factor for education and related outcomes.

“Childhood socioeconomic disadvantage is associated with reduced ability to benefit from schooling, poorer educational outcomes, a lower likelihood of continuing to tertiary education, and less job success. A poor education is associated with increased welfare dependence and lower skilled jobs with lower pay, helping to continue the cycle of disadvantage,” Dr Chittleborough says.

“We’ve known for some time that intervening before the age of five can improve skills necessary for educational success, but the effect of these interventions on socioeconomic inequalities has remained unknown,” she says.

Using data of almost 12,000 children from the UK, the researchers found that progressive educational interventions – and more intense interventions for those with greater need – could improve school entry academic skills and later educational outcomes.

“Based on our models, population levels of educational achievement could rise by 5%, and absolute socioeconomic inequality in poor educational achievement could be reduced by 15%,” Dr Chittleborough says.

“That is an important finding, especially when you consider that in 2012 there were more than 620,000 pupils aged 15-16 in secondary education in the UK. A 5% improvement in their educational outcomes means that 13,500 students would be better off. This would then impact on their future employability and their ability to contribute to society economically. I expect we would see similar outcomes on education if we used Australian data.”

Dr Chittleborough says pre-school education is extremely important to set children on the right path. “By providing the appropriate educational support, we could make a difference to a lot of children’s lives,” she says.


Top story summarised from Child Development, Family Income Dynamics, Early Childhood Education and Care, and Early Child Behavior Problems in Norway by Zachrisson, HD (Center for Child Behavioral Development, formerly with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health), and Dearing, E (Boston College and the Norwegian Center for Child Behavioral Development).


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