Advocates for pre-kindergarten programs have some new evidence to sell the importance of early education.
A new study from researchers at the University of North Carolina shows links between pre-kindergarten enrollment and adult health.
Anne Gemmell, field director for the coalition PreK for PA, said she wasn’t surprised to learn about the health benefits even decades later.
“It’s beyond reading, it’s beyond math. It’s about making good life decisions,” Gemmell said. “High-quality pre-K can also reduce the effects of toxic stress from abuse and neglect.”
Gemmell works for Public Citizens for Children and Youth in Philadelphia, which has received funding from the William Penn Foundation and other groups to raise awareness about pre-K programs.
Since the 1970’s the UNC team has been tracking a group of low-income children in North Carolina who were enrolled in the daycare as infants. The study is called the Carolina Abecedarian Project (ABC), and the newest findings are published in the journal Science.
The study was originally launched to see what could be done to assist low-income children at risk for cognitive delays and academic failure.
Psychologist Frances Campbell, a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the Chapel Hill campus, says the kids participated in what–today–might be called ‘high quality pre-K.’
It’s not clear what exactly made the health difference but Campbell suspects that the stability of five years of pre-K may have buffered the children against the ups and downs—and health risks–of growing up poor.
“I wonder if the treated kids experienced less allostatic load?” Campbell said.
Sometimes called toxic stress, ‘allostatic load’ is a term that refers to the wear and tear on the body that accumulates when a person experiences chronic stress.
At the North Carolina daycare, children were enrolled as infants, and staffers were trained to give kids brain stimulation right from the start.
“You pick the baby up, you talk to him a lot, you hold him when possible. You play peekaboo with him. When he babbles you babble back,” Campbell said.
“There was almost a belief, back then, that you don’t take too much time with a baby because you’ll spoil it, the exact opposite is kind of true, the more time you take up with them, the more they learn to explore, and get curious and do things on their own,” she said.
The children also received pediatric care from a nurse practitioner—and well-baby checkups on site at the daycare.
Researchers have already documented less crime and higher income among the pre-K group. Recently, they checked on health. Campbell said she was surprised by the findings.
“I wouldn’t necessarily have thought that when they were 35-years-old you would see any difference,” she said. “We found it, it was there.”
Compared to children from the same low-income community, the pre-K group grew up to have better high-blood pressure and cholesterol numbers.
The health differences were most striking among the men, especially the measure of obesity.
The children in the daycare received meal and snacks designed by a local nutritionist—which included two meals a day a snack, five days a week.
Campbell said one of her hypotheses is that the pre-K kids got a good nutritional start in life.
Gemmell says that today there’s a growing belief that the cognitive and social habits that children adopt in their early years has long-lasting effects.
“One of the things that’s really pushed public consensus is brain research,” she said.
This January, New Jersey’s influential Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also published a report calling for more investment in pre-k programs in order to promote health.
For Gemmell, not all childcare is created equal.
“High-quality matters. In general that means that the pre-K teacher has gone to college and has had some courses in child development and is more able to create a nurturing environment for these years when brain development is so important,” she said.
For families looking to select a solid childcare program, The National Association for the Education of Young Children provides a checklist and guidelines.