What is it?
Early years or early childhood interventions are approaches that aim to ensure that young children have educationally based pre-school or kindergarten experiences which prepare for school and academic success, usually through additional kindergarten or pre-school provision. Many of the researched programs and approaches focus on disadvantaged children. Some also offer parental support. The research summarised here looks at general or multi-component programs and approaches.
How effective is it?
Overall, the evidence suggests that early years and pre-school intervention is beneficial. On average, early years interventions have an impact of five additional months' progress, and appear to be particularly beneficial for children from low income families.
Once early years provision is in place, efforts to improve the quality of provision, for example by training staff, appear to be more promising than simply increasing the quantity of provision by providing extra hours in the day, or by changing the physical environment of early years regroupings.
In most studies, the impact on achievement tends to wear off over time, though impact on attitudes to school tends to be more durable. There is no established amount of time over which the fade takes place; rather, there is a pattern of decline over time. Early years and pre-school interventions are therefore not sufficient to close the gap in achievement for disadvantaged children.
In an Australasian context, while the evidence base is not extensive, early childhood education programs have been found to improve children’s school readiness, especially among socially disadvantaged children. The Australasian evidence suggests that the quality of early years programs can affect a child’s early school outcomes but that the benefits obtained from such programs appear to fade, which is consistent with the findings of international research on the topic. More research is needed to determine how to sustain these benefits and how teacher collaboration can help a child transition smoothly from early years programs into school.
How secure is the evidence?
There are a number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses which have looked at the impact of early childhood intervention. Most of these are from the USA, however, where children tend to start school at a later age.
What are the costs?
Understandably the costs are high, as adult/child ratios in pre-school provision tend to be higher than in school classes and family interventions have similar high costs. The average annual cost of providinga 15 hour per week kindergarten program delivered by a qualified early childhood teacher is estimated at approximately $4,700 per child. Overall, the costs are estimated as very high.
What should I consider?
High quality provision is essential with well-qualified and well-trained staff.
High quality provision is likely to be characterised by the development of positive relationships between staff and children and by engagement of the children in activities which support pre-reading, the development of early number concepts and non-verbal reasoning..
Extended attendance (1 year +) and starting early (i.e. at 3 years old) is more likely to have an impact than shorter sessions starting later, which on average produce much lower gains.
Disadvantaged children benefit from good-quality programs, especially where these include a mixture of children from different social backgrounds, and a strong educational component.