Why Investing in Early Childhood Education Pays Dividends

Economists Make The Case for Public Investment in Early Education

The first three years of life are truly an awe-inspiring and magical time. Children are poised to acquire the foundational skills and abilities needed for success throughout their entire lives. The advances they make during this sensitive period in the interrelated domains of cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development are primarily influenced by their environmental experiences.

The type and quality of these experiences determines where each child’s individual trajectory will fall on a continuum of high competence and well-being to risk and failure. Investing in early childhood education programs can play a pivotal role in producing positive outcomes for children. Such programs benefit our children as they become adults and in turn also benefit society as they become productive members who experience better well-being. Despite mounting evidence, globally the monetary resources for early childhood education during the earliest years remain severely lacking.

Let’s explore how major findings from several fields intersect to demonstrate the importance of investing in birth-to-three early childhood education. I then offer some action items for you to implement in your own work to help promote these positive and powerful outcomes.

By the Numbers

We might expect the call to invest in early childhood education to come primarily from educators with additional support from child development and developmental psychology. However, one of the most vocal groups has become economists.

Nobel Laureate Professor James Heckman’s work has become the foundation for this movement2. Dr. Heckman’s comprehensive analyses across programs from birth through young adulthood reveal that those for children birth to three yield by far the largest return-on-investment. This return-on-investment encompasses a wide range of benefits including better school and career achievement, less remediation and special education, less need for social services, reduced involvement in crime, better health, and higher productivity.

What’s the Driving Mechanism?

So what exactly is happening during the earliest years of a child’s life that has such a powerful and positive influence? This is where the really good news emerges for those of us in early education. It’s those opportunities and experiences for children that we are already quite familiar with!

Brain development and forming social relationships during the earliest years are two of the most influential mechanisms behind a child’s trajectory for functioning. These areas influence many critically important areas that children need to succeed in school and life including language, literacy (reading and math), creativity, attention, memory, perseverance, motivation, self-control, and cooperation. It is these skills which allow children to grow and develop into individuals who can succeed in school, get good jobs, and be less likely to engage in risk behaviors.

the investment on early education is urgent

The Role of Early Childhood Education

Here’s where early childhood education programs make their very important entrance.

High quality programs are the very ones responsible for the striking economically-based return-on-investment findings.

It is important to be forthright here that the research is clear that quality does matter. Having worked with many early childhood programs, I also know the care of young children is of great importance to owners, directors, and staff and I have always been impressed with their willingness to keep learning and improving for the sake of the children and families they serve.

Let’s look at the major research-based indicators of program quality most needed for optimal outcomes for children5,6:

  • Stable, well-trained staff committed to their work with children
  • Responsive, readily available, affectionate adult-child interaction with small class sizes and high teacher-child ratios to allow such interaction
  • Relationships between teachers and children seen as central to learning and children viewed as active learners
  • A focus on the whole child—his/her intellectual, social, emotional, and physical growth and well-being, with respect for culture
  • A developmentally appropriate curriculum with educational content
  • Active ongoing parent involvement and education
  • Staff development that focuses on continuity, stability, and quality improvement

Action Steps

Advocacy. Spreading the word to policy makers, lawmakers, community business members, parents, and other early childhood programs is essential in the movement to direct more attention and funding to services and programs serving children birth to three. A great starting place is The Heckman Equation site. Here you can find a wealth of print materials and videos prepared for just this purpose. Consider posting on your website, including in newsletters, or sending through email.

Staff Development. Consider evaluating your staff’s or your own professional development plan to include learning more about how to foster those very important relationships with young children. With today’s technology we’re fortunate to have access no matter where we live and work in the world to excellent resources. Check out Zero to Three which has many professional and workforce development resources. While it can be a bit more time consuming, working together with your team you can find and evaluate many great best-practices videos on YouTube to view, discuss, and implement.

Parent Involvement and Education.  In addition to the extremely important activity of sharing with parents the milestones and accomplishments of their little ones, consider incorporating opportunities to educate parents about best practices.

We sometimes forget that unlike ourselves as professionals, most parents have not had the opportunity to learn these. From how to make the most of shared reading, to active listening, to supporting curiosity and motivation, helping parents will benefit their children both at home and when they are with you.

Use videos and hand-on activities with your parents. And keep in mind parents might actually have more success learning with a child other than their own at first. With our own children we tend to be more emotional and concerned about being judged.

investing in early childhood education really works

Closing Thoughts

The importance of investing in birth-to-three early childhood education is decidedly a big topic but I would like to leave you with the following quote which I believe eloquently sums up its importance:

“The economic returns to early investments are high. They promote efficiency and reduce inequality.”

James Heckman



1 Best Start. (2016). Pre-primary Scorecard. London, UK: Author.

2 The Heckman Equation. (2016, Accessed). Available from http://heckmanequation.org/

3 Start Strong. (2011). The Economics of Children’s Early Years. Dublin, Ireland: Author.

4 U.S. Whitehouse. (2014). The Economics of Early Childhood Investments. Washington, DC: Author.

5 Galinsky, E. (2006). The Economic Benefits of High-Quality Early Childhood Programs: What Makes the Difference? Washington, D.C.: Committee for Economic Development. Available from http://familiesandwork.org/site/research/reports/ced.pdf

6 Melhuish, E. (2004). A Literature Review of the Impact of Early Years Provision on Young Children, With Emphasis Given to Children from Disadvantaged Backgrounds. Birkbeck, UK: University of London. https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2004/02/268_literaturereview.pdf

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