July 29, 2019

Do Early Childhood Programs Work?

By Kate Raphael

There’s a lot of evidence that social determinants of health are especially important in the early years of life. Experiences, resources, and opportunities available during childhood can influence health in ways that persist through adulthood. For these reasons, it’s especially important to evaluate the effectiveness of Early Childhood Programs, those interventions targeted at children, usually before the age of 5.

While Early Childhood Programs such as pre-kindergarten education and home visits from child development professionals are extremely prevalent, the interventions are often not well studied. They might be beneficial, but we generally don’t know enough about them to draw those conclusions.

However, in 2017, the RAND Corporation released a report on Early Childhood Programs, evaluating their outcomes and returns on investment. This report hinges on the idea that investments early in childhood pay out for the duration of that child’s lifetime.

In a four-part video series, Aaron Carroll dives into the 115 interventions evaluated in the RAND report. The programs included in the review served children or parents of children from the prenatal period to age five. These programs included early care and education, home visiting, parent education, and transfers—programs that provide cash or other voucher benefits. Overall, the authors of the report found that most early childhood programs pay for themselves and improve at least one outcome for children, usually relating to behavior and emotion, cognitive achievement, or child health.

In three subsequent videos, Carroll explores the effectivenessreturns on investment, and future of these programs. There’s a lot we still don’t understand about how these programs affect child, and later, adult health, but this report, and Carroll’s distillations of it, provide some early education.