Sending your four-year-old to preschool may do more for them than teach them colors, numbers and letters—it might improve their overall lives down the road.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that children who went through preschool have higher incomes, higher education levels, a higher socioeconomic status and are less likely to abuse drugs or be involved in criminal activities. They even saw that kids who were in pre-school full time were most likely to have health insurance.
"These effects haven't been found before for public programs, so the findings are encouraging to provide access to high-quality programs through public funding for kids at risk," said lead researcher Arthur J. Reynolds, a professor in the university's Institute of Child Development.
So what does this mean for our kids?
First, the children who participated in the study lived in the lowest-income neighborhoods of Chicago, where nearly 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line; and most of the children were African-American. The study included 1,386 children, 989 of whom were enrolled in the federally funded Chicago-based Child-Parent Center Education Program from 1983 to 1989, and 550 who weren't. All the children went to full-day kindergarten and received social services. Fifteen percent of the control group attended Head Start, with the rest in home care.
But what's important to note is that just any preschool doesn't equal success. The researchers were clear that the quality of the program is what made the difference.
That means having qualified teachers and providing a structured but nurturing environment. In addition to the quality of the program itself, another reason the Chicago preschools may have had such a large impact is that they helped parents feel that they were part of a community and kept them involved with their children's school. This cut the number of parents who frequently moved their children from one school to another by half.
"School mobility is associated with dropout and other problem behavior," says Reynolds. "These children experienced fewer transitions. The families were more satisfied and less likely to change schools. Another mechanism is that stability and predictability in the learning [environment is] a key feature in positive child development outcomes."
"It's kind of like a chain reaction," he says. "The cognitive advantage and family support leads to a later advantage in terms of school commitment and ultimately, these kids don't get involved in the justice system."
What's even better? These programs were found to be the most successful in boys and children with parents who made the least income. But before we get all hyped about this, it's important to realize that programs like these are expensive and there is much debate about their effectiveness, and given the federal budget deficit and the desire to cut spending on social programs, a lot is up in the air about whether it's best to invest in early education.
Yet Reynolds believes it is worth the cost. "The social program that has the biggest effects and the most enduring effects is preschool. But there is a gap between what we know and what we fund." He added, "This program can reduce the disparities in education and success."