Children Who Complete Intensive Early Childhood Program Show Gains in Adulthood: Greater College Attendance, Lower Crime & Depression

By the time they reached adulthood, graduates of an intensive early childhood education program for poor children showed higher educational attainment, lower rates of serious crime and incarceration, and lower rates of depressive symptoms than did non-participants in the program, reported researchers in a study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.

The Child-Parent Centers (CPC) program in the Chicago Public School System provided intensive instruction in reading and math from pre-kindergarten through third grade, combined with frequent educational field trips. The children’s parents received job skills training, parenting skills training, educational classes and social services. They also volunteered in their children’s classrooms, assisted with field trips and attended parenting support groups. The CPC program is distinct from the federally funded Head Start program.

“These results strongly suggest that comprehensive early education programs can have benefits well into adult life,” said Duane Alexander, Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the NIH institute that funded the study. “A comparatively small investment early in life is associated with gains in education, economic standing, mental health, and other areas.”

The research team that conducted the study was led by University of Minnesota investigators Dr. Arthur J. Reynolds, professor at Institute of Child Development and Dr. Judy A. Temple, professor at the Humphrey Institute and Department of Applied Economics. The researchers followed the children from ages 3 or 4 through age 24 to assess the possible benefits of the CPC program in terms of the children’s educational achievement, need for remedial education, involvement with the child welfare and foster care system, economic status, involvement with the criminal justice system, health status and mental health. The study appears in the August Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Dr. Reynolds and his coauthors followed a group of 1,539 low-income children in the Child-Parent Center (CPC) program, administered by the Chicago Public Schools in Chicago, Illinois. Roughly 1,000 children in the study were enrolled in the CPC program at ages 3 or 4 and 500 were enrolled in the comparison group, which was made up of children in alternative early childhood education programs. Children in the CPC group were matched to children in the comparison group of similar age and background. The study began following the children in 1985 and 1986. Families moved into and out of the area during the time the study took place, so not all children completed all components of the CPC program. The children in the study were 93 percent African American and 7 percent Hispanic.

Because the study did not assign children randomly to the two groups, it cannot conclusively prove that the CPC program caused the gains observed in its graduates. However, the study results strongly suggest that the program produced lasting benefits—even for children who completed only part of the program. By age 24, for example, children who participated only in the preschool program had lower rates of depression, lower rates of violent crime and incarceration, were more likely to attend 4 year colleges and were more likely to have health insurance than children who did not participate in the preschool program. However, graduates of both the preschool and school age components of the CPC program were more likely to attend college and to be employed full time, and less likely to receive public assistance or to have a disability than those who participated in other programs. Children who participated in only the school age component of the CPC program also showed benefits in adult life. By age 24, these children had lower rates of disability and were less likely to receive public assistance.

“Children who were enrolled in the CPC program were generally more socially engaged and educationally adept,” said Dr. Reynolds. “These benefits appear to be derived from early gains made in the CPC program on school readiness, achievement, and parental involvement in the children’s schooling.”

Established in 1967, the CPC program is currently federally funded through Title I of the No Child Left Behind Act and is still operating in Chicago. The program is implemented by certified teachers, has a low child-to-teacher ratio, and provides intensive parent involvement. Its curriculum includes structured field trips and class activities that emphasize oral and written communication, said Dr. Reynolds. The program also fosters early literacy through conventional classroom activities, in addition to story book reading and language games that help children recognize letters and understand the sounds for which they stand.

In addition to parenting classes, the CPC program offers high school equivalency classes, career development skills workshops, and other professional training.

“The program is an outreach to the parents as well,” said Dr. Reynolds. “In order to lift families out of poverty, attention is directed to the whole family.”

He noted that past research has shown that completing more schooling is linked with earning a higher income, a decreased involvement in criminal activity and even a decrease in rates of depression.

“Children who participated in this program had a greater recognition that more schooling is the way out of poverty,” he said. “The study is the first to show that large-scale established programs run by schools can have enduring effects into adulthood across a range of outcomes.”


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