Young children who receive a high-quality education — starting at six weeks old through age five — are more likely to be employed full-time and have stronger relationships with their parents as adults, according to a new study by researchers at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.
The researchers are presenting their findings at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in Austin, Texas.
The study follows 96 children who are participating in the Abecedarian Project, an early education program for at-risk infants and children that started in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1971.
“The most recent findings from the Abecedarian Project are about the quality of life, tied to what the children experienced in the first five years of life,” said study leader Craig Ramey, a professor and distinguished research scholar of human development at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. Ramey spearheaded the Abecedarian Project over the past 45 years.
“We have demonstrated that when we provide vulnerable children and families with really high quality services — educationally, medically, socially — we have impacts of a large and practical magnitude all the way up to middle age,” said Ramey, who also serves as a chief science officer of Roanoke, Virginia.
Both the treatment group and the control group were given health care, nutrition, and family support through social services; however, the treatment group also received five years of early care and education.
According to Ramey, high-quality education all day for five days a week, and for 50 weeks a year, beginning at six weeks of age and continuing until the child starts kindergarten, makes a lifetime of difference. The main focus is on the child-teacher relationship.
“And in our early education program, the most important thing is the quality of interaction between the teachers and the children,” Ramey said, pointing to the teachers’ abilities to tailor educational activities to a child’s specific needs, in a fun and natural way, as a critical element of the study’s results. “It’s pretty clear that’s what the magic ingredient is.”
The quality of natural teaching — primarily driven by the social interaction between teacher and child — is extremely important, especially in infancy, said Ramey. This includes such things as the conversational aspect of language and the focus on interactive reading as enjoyable, rather than a chore.
“The data show that children who received the educational treatment are successful socially, especially in a familial setting, as indicated by their close relationships with their mothers and fathers in middle age,” said Libbie Sonnier-Netto, a doctoral student in human development at Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, who conducted the follow-up interviews for this study.
Sonnier-Netto added that participants in the treatment group are more likely to be employed full-time, with more assets, such as owning a car, a home, and having a savings account. According to Ramey, the link between the results is obvious.
So far, the researchers have followed-up with 78 of the 96 participants, with more interviews and physical check-ups planned for most of the remaining group members. Of the 96 participants, only one has decided to drop out of the study. It’s an unusually high retention rate for a study spanning so many decades.
“What we’ve discovered is that if you treat people well, they thrive and they, in turn, give back,” Ramey said. “Part of our task is to make what we now know to be so important — high-quality, early childhood education and care — widely available to all who need it in this country.”
The researchers expect to continue analyzing the dataset about the effects of early care and education on the children as they progress through middle age.