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Why early childhood?

For many years, research has supported a link between high-quality early experiences and later success in school and life. The social, emotional, and cognitive skills learned in a child’s first five years of life will influence his or her future relationships, academic performance, coping skills, and career path. Children—especially those from low-income families—supported in high-quality early environments are less likely to require special education services, drop out of school, use drugs and alcohol, be involved in the criminal justice system and utilize social welfare programs than their peers. High quality early experiences can also play a significant role in eliminating disparities in school readiness, thus reducing the achievement gap.

A growing body of research indicates that investments in quality early learning programs result in large, positive economic returns to society. Studies completed by economists have found return on investment rates of up to $17 for every $1 invested. University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate, James Heckman, has completed groundbreaking work, producing some of the strongest evidence supporting investment in high-quality early education programs (see graph below).


Economists and early education organizations are not the only ones who have recognized the tremendous impact that high-quality early education can have on children, families, and society. Leaders in law enforcement, business, faith-based organizations, sports, and the retired military, through the Council for a Strong America (CSA), have begun publically touting the benefits of access to high-quality early childhood care and education.

Even more impactful are recent studies, demonstrating how early experiences actually influence brain growth and development. What we now know is that early environments and experiences have a remarkably strong impact on the architecture of the brain. Brain development happens over many years, from before birth into adulthood. Even though the brain continues to develop well beyond childhood, the early years of brain development are critical because they form the foundation for subsequent growth. Because 700 and 1,000 new neural connections are formed every SECOND in the first few years of life, a child’s early environment and life experiences impact the brain more than any other time period.


Moreover, during the early years, the brain is adaptable and responsive to interventions and experiences. It is much more effective to form strong brain circuitry early in life, than try to “re-build” connections later on.

Unfortunately, current public investment in education conflicts with research findings around brain development and return on investment. Instead of strong public investments in early education, the United States spends almost three times more funding per child on school-age children than on infants and toddlers. Moreover, preschool age children receive approximately 60% as much funding as school-age children.

Source: Urban Institute, 2012, "A Kids' Share Analysis of Expenditures in 2008 and 2011 by Age Group"
Source: Urban Institute, 2012, “A Kids’ Share Analysis of Expenditures in 2008 and 2011 by Age Group”

Providing a child with high-quality early experiences is one of the best ways to support all children, especially those who are exposed to early risk factors including abuse, neglect, poverty, and domestic violence.