The Importance of Investing in Early Childhood Development and the Role of Families

The Importance of Investing in Early Childhood Development and the Role of Families

Alison Baulos, James Heckman
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-8649-5.ch002
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Efforts to reduce inequality and promote better learning outcomes will only be effective when they include a focus on early childhood development. Investments made early in childhood, a period when inequality gaps emerge, have the potential to provide a higher return on investment than at any other time during an individual's life. The basic skills acquired during the first five years of life are the foundation for important future skills. Whether or not a child attends formal childcare prior to schooling, the family is still the primary influence in a young person's life; a home environment lacking enrichment will lead to skills gaps that persist throughout a lifetime. This chapter makes the case that by starting early and providing support to parents and primary caregivers, there is the potential to promote social mobility and positive outcomes for children, their families, and ultimately, future generations in the aggregate.
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Those seeking to promote human development, realize individual potential, and reduce inequality must address the crucial factor that the earlier an investment is made, the better. Critical periods of human development occur in the first five years of life. Indeed, even before birth crucial systems in the brain are being built. Early experiences and interactions have the potential to encourage or discourage healthy and optimal development. Vital to these positive experiences and interactions are supportive parents and caregivers. Many public policies only allocate resources to reverse or ameliorate personal challenges and societal problems after they have emerged. The longer one waits to address the many societal impacts of inequality, the weaker the results will be. Investments that promote early childhood development, especially those that equip caregivers to support children—such as skill-building, family support, and education—have been shown to build a sturdy foundation for later-in-life investments in human capital.

Many disadvantages experienced in childhood are highly correlated to continued inequality in education, opportunity, and health throughout a person’s life. Each of these areas can be effectively addressed, thereby promoting economic mobility with skill-building investments in early childhood development that will remediate disadvantages and build opportunities. Subsequently, the entry points that follow, such as in childcare, preschool, primary school, job training, and college, will be more successful in fostering a holistic learning ecosystem.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Control Contamination: Where participants in a control group receive early childhood services independent of the study.

Matthew Effect: A sequence where those who begin with advantage gather more advantage, creating a cumulative advantage effect over time.

Sibling Spillover: How benefits of a program also benefit siblings who were not in a program. For example, a child may learn additional skills in preschool which are then modeled at home to younger siblings. The channel of incluence may also be through a parent, for example who learns about what to expect from a quality early childhood program.

Human Capital: The skills and knowledge that individuals acquire through education and experience. It can be accumulated through investment in education.

Socioeconomic Status: The social standing or class of an individual or a group measured through education, income and occupation.

Dynamic Complementarity: Skills developed at one stage increase the productivity of investments received at a later stage.

Head Start: A Federal program in the United States that focuses on improving the school readiness of children up to age five from low-income families by improving their cognitive, social, and emotional development.

Two-Generation Approach: Addressing the needs of children and parents in a coordinated way.

Social Mobility: How an individual shifts through the society’s class structure over time based on economic, cultural, human, and social capital changes. May include intergenerational mobility which is the dependency between socio-economic status of parents and the status their children.

Executive Functioning Skills: Brain based cognitive skills required to plan, focus and execute.

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