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Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Christina Weiland, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Margaret R. Burchinal, Linda M. Espinosa, William T. Gormley, Jens Ludwig, Katherine A. Magnuson, Deborah Phillips, Martha J. Zaslow, 2013

One of the primary goals of the Obama Administration’s Preschool for All proposal is to increase access to high-quality early childhood education (ECE) programs for four-year-olds in the United States. At present, 78 percent of U.S. four-year-olds attend preschool (defined as a center-based early education setting). However, there is a large disparity between enrollment in the lower three income quintiles of the nation (poor and lower-middle-class families) and the top two quintiles (upper-middle and upper-class families). One-third of the fomer are not enrolled in preschool, compared to just over 10% of the latter.. The President’s proposal has sparked considerable and healthy debate about the merits of preschool education. However, in some of these debates, the most recent evidence has not yet been included for consideration. The goal of this brief is to provide a non-partisan and thorough review of the current science and evidence base of early childhood education that includes the most recent research. Our group of early childhood experts reviewed rigorous evidence on why early skills matter, the short- and long-term effects of preschool programs on children’s school readiness and life outcomes, the importance of program quality, which children benefit from preschool (including evidence on children from different family income backgrounds), and the costs versus benefits of preschool education. We focus on preschool (early childhood education) for four-year-olds, with some review of the evidence for three-year-olds when relevant. We do not discuss evidence concerning other elements of the proposal, such as programs for 0 – 3 year olds.

Adriana Weisleder and Anne Fernald, 2013

Infants differ substantially in their rates of language growth, and slow growth predicts later academic difficulties. In this study, we explored how the amount of speech directed to infants in Spanish-speaking families low in socioeconomic status influenced the development of children’s skill in real-time language processing and vocabulary learning. All day recordings of parent-infant interactions at home revealed striking variability among families in how much speech caregivers addressed to their child. Infants who experienced more child-directed speech became more efficient in processing familiar words in real time and had larger expressive vocabularies by the age of 24 months, although speech simply overheard by the child was unrelated to vocabulary outcomes. Mediation analyses showed that the effect of child-directed speech on expressive vocabulary was explained by infants’ language-processing efficiency, which suggests that richer language experience strengthens processing skills that facilitate language growth.

Press Release: Talking directly to toddlers strengthens their language skills, Stanford research shows

Anne Fernald, Virginia A. Marchman and Adriana Weisleder ,2013

This research revealed both similarities and striking differences in early language proficiency among infants from a broad range of advantaged and disadvantaged families. English-learning infants (n = 48) were followed longitudinally from 18 to 24 months, using real-time measures of spoken language processing. The first goal was to track developmental changes in processing efficiency in relation to vocabulary learning in this diverse sample. The second goal was to examine differences in these crucial aspects of early language development in relation to family socioeconomic status (SES). The most important findings were that significant disparities in vocabulary and language processing efficiency were already evident at 18 months between infants from higher- and lower-SES families, and by 24 months there was a 6-month gap between SES groups in processing skills critical to language development.

Press Release: Language gap between rich and poor children begins in infancy, Stanford psychologists find

Claude M. Steele, 1997

A general theory of domain identification is used to describe achievement barriers still faced by women in advanced quantitative areas and by African Americans in school. The theory assumes that sustained school success requires identification with school and its subdomains; that societal pressures on these groups (e.g., economic disadvantage, gender roles) can frustrate this identification; and that in school domains where these groups are negatively stereotyped, those who have become domain identified face the further barrier of stereotype threat, the threat that others' judgments or their own actions will negatively stereotype them in the domain. Research shows that this threat dramatically depresses the standardized test performance of women and African Americans who are in the academic vanguard of their groups (offering a new interpretation of group differences in standardized test performance), that it causes disidentification with school, and that practices that reduce this threat can reduce these negative effects.

Geoffrey L. Cohen and David K. Sherman, 2013

People have a basic need to maintain the integrity of the self, a global sense of personal adequacy. Events that threaten self-integrity arouse stress and self-protective defenses that can hamper performance and growth. However, an intervention known as self-affirmation can curb these negative outcomes. Self-affirmation interventions typically have people write about core personal values. The interventions bring about a more expansive view of the self and its resources, weakening the implications of a threat for personal integrity. Timely affirmations have been shown to improve education, health, and relationship outcomes, with benefits that sometimes persist for months and years. Like other interventions and experiences, self-affirmations can have lasting benefits when they touch off a cycle of adaptive potential, a positive feedback loop between the self-system and the social system that propagates adaptive outcomes over time. The present review highlights both connections with other disciplines and lessons for a social psychological understanding of intervention and change.

Patrice L Engle, Lia C H Fernald, Harold Alderman, Jere Behrman, Chloe O’Gara, Aisha Yousafzai, Meena Cabral de Mello, Melissa Hidrobo, Nurper Ulkuer, Ilgi Ertem, Selim Iltus, and the Global Child Development Steering Group, 2011

This report is the second in a Series on early child development in low-income and middle-income countries and assesses the effectiveness of early child development interventions, such as parenting support and preschool enrollment. The evidence reviewed suggests that early child development can be improved through these interventions, with effects greater for programmes of higher quality and for the most vulnerable children. Other promising interventions for the promotion of early child development include children’s educational media, interventions with children at high risk, and combining the promotion of early child development with conditional cash transfer programmes. Effective investments in early child development have the potential to reduce inequalities perpetuated by poverty, poor nutrition, and restricted learning opportunities. A simulation model of the potential long-term economic effects of increasing preschool enrollment to 25% or 50% in every low-income and middle-income country showed a benefit-to-cost ratio ranging from 6·4 to 17·6, depending on preschool enrollment rate and discount rate.

Susan P Walker, Theodore D Wachs, Sally Grantham-McGregor, Maureen M Black, Charles A Nelson, Sandra L Huff man, Helen Baker-Henningham, Susan M Chang, Jena D Hamadani, Betsy Lozoff , Julie M Meeks Gardner, Christine A Powell, Atif Rahman, Linda Richter, 2011

Inequality between and within populations has origins in adverse early experiences. Developmental neuroscience shows how early biological and psychosocial experiences affect brain development. We previously identified inadequate cognitive stimulation, stunting, iodine deficiency, and iron-deficiency anaemia as key risks that prevent millions of young children from attaining their developmental potential. Recent research emphasises the importance of these risks, strengthens the evidence for other risk factors including intrauterine growth restriction, malaria, lead exposure, HIV infection, maternal depression, institutionalisation, and exposure to societal violence, and identifies protective factors such as breastfeeding and maternal education. Evidence on risks resulting from prenatal maternal nutrition, maternal stress, and families affected with HIV is emerging. Interventions are urgently needed to reduce children’s risk exposure and to promote development in affected children. Our goal is to provide information to help the setting of priorities for early child development programmes and policies to benefit the world’s poorest children and reduce persistent inequalities.

Clyde Hertzman and Tom Boyce, 2009

Social environments and experiences get under the skin early in life in ways that affect the course of human development. Because most factors associated with early child development are a function of socioeconomic status, differences in early child development form a socioeconomic gradient.We are now learning how, when, and by what means early experiences influence key biological systems over the long term to produce gradients: a process known as biological embedding. Opportunities for biological embedding are tethered closely to sensitive periods in the development of neural circuitry. Epigenetic regulation is the best example of operating principles relevant to biological embedding. We are now in a position to ask how early childhood environments work together with genetic variation and epigenetic regulation to generate socially partitioned developmental trajectories with impact on health across the life course.

W. Thomas Boyce, Pamela K. Den Besten, Juliet Stamperdahl, Ling Zhan, Yebin Jiang, Nancy E. Adler, John D. Featherstone, 2010

The studies reported here examines stress-related psychobiological processes that might account for the high, disproportionate rates of dental caries, the most common chronic disease of childhood, among children growing up in low socioeconomic status (SES) families. In two 2004e2006 studies of kindergarten children from varying socioeconomic backgrounds in the San Francisco Bay Area of California (Ns ¼ 94 and 38), we performed detailed dental examinations to count decayed, missing or filled dental surfaces and microtomography to assess the thickness and density of microanatomic dental compartments in exfoliated, deciduous teeth (i.e., the shed, primary dentition). Cross-sectional, multivariate associations were examined between these measures and SES-related risk factors, including household education, financial stressors, basal and reactive salivary cortisol secretion, and the number of oral cariogenic bacteria. We hypothesized that family stressors and stress-related changes in oral biology might explain, fully or in part, the known socioeconomic disparities in dental health. We found that nearly half of the five-year-old children studied had dental caries. Low SES, higher basal salivary cortisol secretion, and larger numbers of cariogenic bacteria were each significantly and independently associated with caries, and higher salivary cortisol reactivity was associated with thinner, softer enamel surfaces in exfoliated teeth. The highest rates of dental pathology were found among children with the combination of elevated salivary cortisol expression and high counts of cariogenic bacteria. The socioeconomic partitioning of childhood dental caries may thus involve social and psychobiological pathways through which lower SES is associated with higher numbers of cariogenic bacteria and higher levels of stress-associated salivary cortisol. This convergence of psychosocial, infectious and stress-related biological processes appears to be implicated in the production of greater cariogenic bacterial growth and in the conferral of an increased physical vulnerability of the developing dentition.

Rena L. Repetti, Theodore F. Robles, and Bridget Reynolds, 2011

The concepts of allostatic load and allostatic processes can help psychologists understand how health trajectories are influenced by stressful childhood experiences in the family. This paper describes psychological pathways and two key allostatic mediators, the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis and the immune system, through which stressful early rearing conditions may influence adult mental and physical health. The action of meshed gears is introduced as a metaphor to illustrate how responses occurring within a brief time frame, for example, immediate reactions to stressors, can influence developmental and health processes unfolding over much longer spans of time. We identify early-developing psychological and biological response patterns that could link chronic stressors in childhood to later health outcomes. Some of these “precursor outcomes” (e.g., heightened vigilance and preparedness for threats; enhanced inflammatory and humoral responses to infectious microorganisms) appear to be aimed at protection from immediate dangers; they may reflect “adaptive trade-offs” that balance short-term survival advantages under harsh rearing conditions against disadvantages manifested later in development. Our analysis also suggests mechanisms that underlie resilience in risky family environments.