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Education policy lags behind research findings

If we want to maximize the impact of early childhood learning, there are three critical elements that should be woven into any plan to expand early childhood education.AP/file 2014

Generals are often accused of fighting the last war. I'm afraid the same can be said of education reformers and policy makers. Too often education policy lags substantially behind empiricism.

There has been an explosion in knowledge about how children develop skills, the kinds of skills that are crucial to academic and life-long success, and the development of the brain, but generally these advancements have not been translated into new thinking about how we best educate children. A case in point is early childhood education.

The first thing we know is that early childhood education pays off. The seminal work of Nobel laureate James Heckman provides compelling evidence of the individual and societal, academic, economic, and social returns of investment in early childhood education. Economist Tim Bartik has found that early childhood education can "increase a child's future adult earnings by over 25 percent." An NIH study of a Chicago preschool program found that by age 24, children who participated in the program had lower rates of depression, violent crime and incarceration, and were more likely to attend four-year colleges and to have health insurance than children who did not participate in the preschool program.

If we want to maximize the impact of early childhood learning, there are three critical elements that should be woven into any plan to expand early childhood education.


First, while most proposals to expand early learning target 4-year-olds (such as Mayor Bill de Blasio's ambitious goal of universal pre-K in New York City), research suggests that 4 is too late to start. Learning begins at birth, and 90 percent of the brain is developed within the first three years of life. As one recent Brookings Institution paper concluded, "[W]e know from the scientific literature that attention to the development of human capital needs to start when the brain is developing the fastest and is at its most malleable – that is right at the beginning of life." This is not to say that expanding pre-K for 4-year-olds is not a worthy goal, but we are better off following the lead of Norway where publicly subsidized high-quality early childhood education is available to all children starting at age one.


Second, learning focused on emotional and social development is every bit as important as learning focused on the development of cognitive skills, and in fact is a prerequisite for all other learning. Learning requires that children be able to pay attention, be patient, persist, persevere, face their mistakes, and remain focused when frustrated. Each of these skills is rooted in the ability of children to understand, control and manage their own emotions (what developmental psychologists refer to as self-regulation). When children are better able to manage intense emotions including stress and anxiety, more of the brain's energy is available to perform the intensive tasks of listening, concentrating, and problem solving – critical thinking skills necessary for learning. Children as young as preschoolers who develop the skills in self-regulation are much more able to focus, attend, comprehend, retain, and discuss complex concepts, like physics, astronomy, and mathematics. As Heckman's research has confirmed, "too much emphasis continues to be placed on one side of the human capital coin – namely cognitive skills" and too little on the development of emotional and social ("character") skills.

Finally, there is a disturbing trend to try to "push down" into early childhood education an emphasis on hard academic skills, including literacy and math. But educational content needs to be appropriate to the developmental stage of the child. You can't take a "lite" version of a first- or second-grade curriculum and expect it to work with 3- and 4-year-olds. A focus on narrow academic skills at such an early age is completely inappropriate and takes away from more important "work" such as creative play and socializing. It's strange that just as employers are recognizing the importance of skills such as working together and thinking creatively, so-called ed reformers want to take all the fun out of early childhood learning.


As Governor-elect Charlie Baker considers his agenda for the next four years, there is no single other policy initiative that could achieve more than investment in early childhood education to improve the educational performance of our children, build the pipeline of skilled workers for our economy and address disturbing disparities in income and wealth.

Dr. Donna Housman is the founder of Beginnings School in Weston, a clinical psychologist, and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.