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How early is too early for education?

Published: Friday, April 18 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

6-month-old Caleb Steinmetz smiles for the camera as he responds to his mom, Jenny Steinmetz, April 17, 2014. One of the most important things that parents can do is just talk to their babies — whether they are just cooing or smiling or playing peek-a-boo, says Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Courtesy of Jenny Steinmetz

Frances Campbell was a station-wagon mom in North Carolina, running her kids around town, when she got a part-time position to help with a scientific study on the benefits of early childhood education for poor children.

The study took about 100 infants — as young as three weeks old and most no more than six months — and randomly assigned them to a control group or treatment group to study their cognitive development. The treatment group received full-time day care for six to eight hours including meals, five days a week, until they were 5 years old. The control group received nutritional supplements and access to health care — and nothing more.

People like Campbell played games, cooed and talked to the babies in the treatment group. Caretakers watched their head control and dangled red toy rings in front of the babies to track their eye movement, watching for cognitive advancement. "You can talk to a baby and say, 'Hi, Sweetie,' and his breathing will change," says Campbell with her slight Carolina drawl. "If you say 'Hi, Sweetie' and he just lies there and don't get a reaction, that can be a sign of delayed development."

The year Campbell began working on the project was 1972, and 42 years later, Campbell is now a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's 81 years old and still doing research on early childhood education, which has become her life's work. "It really hooked me," she says, "I'm still trying to put it down." She and others have continued to track the lives of those original infant subjects in what has become known as the "Abecedarian Project."

The findings have been striking to researchers like Campbell: Members of the care group were four times more likely to graduate from college, but perhaps more strikingly, they are healthier. A new study, published in the journal Science, led by James Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, reports that the care group has significantly lower rates of high blood pressure and obesity.

The news offers evidence that childhood education — from the earliest age — can have striking improvements on success and lifelong health.

Starting young

Many of the children in the Abecedarian treatment group were born to low-income mothers who didn't have adequate childcare while they were at work, and many American families still struggle to provide early child care and education for their children. Fewer than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"If parents can stay at home, that's wonderful. The reality is that most parents can’t," says Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an early childhood education advocacy group. "There is so little infant and toddler child care, and it's very expensive — people don't want to face that," she says.

The Obama administration has been pushing for government-funded preschool for 4-year-olds to address the lack of affordable early childcare, but studies like the one in Science indicate that a child's education begins much earlier.

Campbell says that cognitive development, especially for at-risk children, needs to begin as early as possible. "One of my big takeaways is that if you've waited until age 5, that's too late," she says. The study argues that many of the skills for successful adult life are learned in infancy and the first few years of life. The children showed little difference as babies, says Campbell, but as early as age 3 their cognitive abilities began to diverge.

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