Early Childhood

Study: Program Started in Infancy Has Positive Effect in Adult Years

By Linda Jacobson — October 27, 1999 5 min read

An educational child-care program, started during infancy, can have lasting benefits for poor children, new results from a prominent, long-running study suggest.

Those who participated in the Abecedarian Project, now young adults, were more likely to perform well on tests of intelligence, pursue higher education, and delay parenting than those who did not receive such services, according to the university researchers conducting the project.

The study is the only one of its kind tracking outcomes for low-income children who were randomly assigned during the first few months of life to an intensive child-care program. Its findings could have far-reaching implications for the debate over the effects of high-quality preschool and programs such as Head Start.

“We know that if we wait until children get to age 4 ... we have a substantial number of children who are woefully behind when they begin school,” said Craig Ramey, a professor of psychology, pediatrics, and neurobiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who worked on the project with researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The cost of the program, $11,000 per child in today’s terms, is also sure to spark discussion over how much federal and state governments should be spending on child care as they continue to move low-income mothers off welfare and into the job market.

‘Playful Interaction’

Named for a pupil who is learning the alphabet, the Abecedarian Project officially began in 1972 at UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center. Over five years, 111 children from low-income families in Chapel Hill were enrolled in the project, with 57 assigned to a specific year-round, full-day child-care program and 54 assigned to a control group. Both groups received nutritional supplements during the early years and social service referrals until the children were 8.

The new findings, released late last week, cover 104 of the adults who were in the original sample. Previous studies also were conducted when the children reached ages 12 and 15, and researchers say they would like to continue studying the group. (“A 14-Year Study of Preschoolers Finds Long-Term Gains for Disadvantaged,” Oct. 23, 1985.)

The central feature of the child-care program was a package of activities, called “Learningames,” that emphasized language skills.

In an example of what one researcher described as “playful interaction” with a baby as young as 4 months, the teacher wears a scarf and leans over so the baby can reach the scarf. When the baby reaches, the teacher smiles and talks to the baby to reward the behavior. The activity teaches the baby that he can make something happen.

Lessons for older children included matching similar pictures and making a calendar.

The researchers conclude that it likely was the children’s “enhanced language skills” that raised their academic performance.

While it offered a particular curriculum, the program was much like any high-quality child-care center that exists today and meets the standards set by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the researchers said.

Staff-to-child ratios in the Abecedarian program were low--1-to-3 for infants, up to 1-to-7 for preschoolers--and the project had little turnover of teachers.

Teachers received continuing training, but only a fourth were college graduates. That suggests, the researchers say, that with strong leadership and a well-designed program, even those with just a high school diploma can be effective preschool teachers.

Good for All?

While similar in some respects to the often-cited High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, which has followed children from the town of Ypsilanti, Mich., through age 27, the Abecedarian Project also has many distinctive features. It began in infancy and continued over a five-year period. Most early-intervention programs run for only two or three years.

Some of the children also continued receiving separate educational services through the program once they entered school. But the researchers found that the preschool program had the most significant impact on achievement and other outcomes.

The federally financed Head Start, the nation’s largest public preschool program, has long been criticized as not producing long-lasting benefits. The Abecedarian Project, Mr. Ramey said, already has had an impact on that program by influencing the creation of Early Head Start, which covers the first three years of life.

Some have argued that findings from the Abecedarian research and the Perry Preschool study should not be used to advocate for publicly funded programs for all children.

“It’s really clear that what they [the researchers] want is a universal system,” said Darcy Olsen, a policy analyst on children’s issues for the Washington-based Cato Institute. “It should not be concluded that this is good for all kids.”

But she said the good news about the study was that “they didn’t do anything in the preschool center that a regular mom and dad can’t do with their own child.”

Policy Questions

The researchers have also looked at how the performance of the students in the Abecedarian Project compared with that of the broader school population.

At the K-12 level, achievement of children in the project fell below the average achievement levels of other students attending the Chapel Hill public schools, which Frances Campbell, an investigator at the Frank Porter Graham center described as an “excellent school system” in a “educationally advantaged community.” But they scored near the average when compared with national norms.

David P. Weikert, the president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, said the fact that the Abecedarian Project’s findings on “real world” results, such as college attendance, meshed with those from the Perry Preschool study was important. The North Carolina findings add to the “growing power of really long-term data,” he said.

But the study’s findings also raise a question for policymakers: Is a five-year, full-day, five-day-a-week program necessary for young children if the results are going to be so similar to those from a program that ran for just a couple of years?

The Abecedarian Project Age 21 Follow-Up was jointly financed by the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Palo Alto, Calif.-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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