Start Early. Start well.


The greatest opportunity for lifelong impact on children’s development is in the years from birth through age 8. Decades of research point to the early years as the most critical time for building intellect, strengthening social and emotional skills, and setting a positive trajectory for school and life success.

The Evidence

More than 150 high-quality, scientific studies from all over the world demonstrate that starting early can have major short- and long-term effects on cognition and social-emotional development, as well as on school progress, earnings, reduction in anti-social behavior, lowered welfare participation, and even trouble with the law.

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., Barnett, W.S. (2010). Meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record, 112 (3), 579-620.

Engle, P.L., Fernald, L., Alderman, H., et al. (2011). Strategies for reducing inequalities and improving developmental outcomes for young children in low‐income and middle‐income countries. Lancet, 378 (9799), 1339-1353.

A Smart Investment

Investing in early childhood makes sense. Short-term costs are more than offset by the immediate and long-term benefits through reduced need for special education and remediation, better health outcomes, reduced need for social services, lower criminal justice costs, and increased self-sufficiency and productivity among families. Studies show an average return over time of $4 for every dollar invested. In circumstances where children are extremely vulnerable, the return can be as high as $13.

Karoly, L. A. (2017). The economic returns to early childhood education. The Future of Children, 26(2), 37–55; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). Transforming the Financing of Early Care and Education. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Heckman, J. J. (2012). The case for investing in disadvantaged young children. In B. Falk (Ed.), Defending Early Childhood (pp. 235–242). New York: Teachers College Press; Heckman, J., Pinto, R., & Savelyev, P. (2013). Understanding the Mechanisms Through Which an Influential Early Childhood Program Boosted Adult Outcomes. American Economic Review, 103(6), 2052–2086; Heckman: The Economics of Human Potential. (n.d.). Retrieved from; Heckman; Rolnick, A. J. (2003). Early Childhood Development: Economic Development with a High Public Return. FedGazette. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Brain Development

In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. Neural connections are formed through the interaction of genes and a baby’s environment and experiences. These are the connections that build brain architecture—the foundation upon which all later learning, behavior, and health depend.

Center on the Developing Child. "The Science of Early Childhood Development," Harvard University.

Language and Literacy

The number of words and the breadth of vocabulary heard by a child during the first three years of life is a key component for school preparation and can dramatically affect language development and IQ. Differences in vocabulary growth between children in low-income families and high-income families begin to appear as early as 18 months. A child from a high-income family will experience 30 million more words within the first four years of life than a child from a low-income family. This gap does nothing but grow as the years progress, ensuring slow growth for children who are economically disadvantaged and accelerated growth for those from more privileged backgrounds.

Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995).Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Fernald, A., Marchman,V.A., & Weisleder, A. (2012). SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental Science, 16 (2), 234-248.

School and Life Success

Cognitive and non-cognitive abilities—including key workforce skills such as motivation, persistence, self-regulation, and self-control—are important for a productive workforce, and deficits that emerge early are difficult to change. At-risk children who DO NOT receive a high-quality early childhood education are:

  • 25% more likely to drop out of school
  • 40% more likely to become a teen parent
  • 50% more likely to be placed in special education
  • 60% more likely to never attend college
  • 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime

Barnett, W.S., et al. (1996). Lives in the Balance: Age-27 Benefit-Cost Analysis of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program. Ypsilanti, MI: Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, Number Eleven.

Heckman, J.J. & Masterov, D.V. (October 2004). The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children, Working Paper 5, Invest in Kids Working Group, Committee for Economic Development.

Social-Emotional Development

Responsive relationships with consistent primary caregivers help build positive attachments that support healthy social-emotional development. These relationships form the foundation of mental health for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The social skills they develop—perseverance, attention, motivation, and self-confidence, for example—will make them more successful in life.

Zero to Three.

Walker, S.P., Chang, S.M., Vera-Hernandez, M., Grantham-McGregor, S. (2011). Early childhood stimulation benefits adult competence and reduces violent behavior. Pediatrics, 127 (5) 849-857.

Start early. Start well.

It’s more efficient, both biologically and economically, to get things right the first time than to try to fix them later. We’ve learned that brains, skills, and health are built over time, but starting early is what counts. Neuroscientists tell us that the window of opportunity for development remains open for many years, but the costs of remediation grow with age.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2007).

J.P. Shonkoff & D.A. Phillips, (Eds.) (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

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