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Is Pre-K Doing All It Can to Improve Child Health?


February 5, 2019
RU Today

High-quality preschool can be part of a stronger culture of health that improves children’s physical and mental health throughout their lives.  However, too many state policies and programs miss opportunities to provide significant benefits, according to a new analysis by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers Graduate School of Education.

Research shows that children in high-quality preschool are more likely to receive health and dental care and less likely to suffer depressive symptoms, high blood pressure and hypertension later in life. High-quality programs can also increase children’s cognitive and social-emotional skills, which helps reduce risk-taking behaviors and unemployment throughout life.

Preschool programs can also help children develop healthy eating habits and provide opportunities for children to participate in regular, vigorous exercise through play.

The study shows that high-quality preschool programs can also have an effect on children’s health by addressing parent health issues and enhancing parenting skills that reduce the likelihood of child abuse and neglect.

“Quality programs provide health screenings, nutritious food and plenty of time for active play for young children, while engaging and encouraging parents to make healthy food choices and get active with their children – reducing obesity and stress,” said Allison Friedman-Krauss, lead author of the analysis. “Unfortunately, too few programs are doing all they could to set children on the path to good health.”

With support from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NIEER published a new policy paper, Early Childhood Education: Three Pathways to Better Health, that explores how access to high-quality preschool and parenting education beginning in early pregnancy can provide children lasting health benefits in the United States, and internationally. NIEER recommends that programs:

  •     Provide health screenings and referrals for follow-up care to encourage and facilitate access to vision, hearing, dental, mental health and other health care
  •     Require early learning programs to provide information about health, nutrition and exercise so children and parents can develop healthy habits
  •     Offer nutrition supplementation to prevent, and reverse, malnutrition where needed
  •     Prescribe healthy and nutritious foods and exercise to combat obesity
  •     Support children’s social-emotional development

Friedman-Krauss says more research is needed, but available evidence is clear that preschool is an opportunity to foster a culture of health in which childhood poverty doesn’t lead to poor adult health.