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Policy Analysis

Early Childhood Education: Three Pathways to Better Health


January 3, 2019
Allison Friedman-Krauss, Sima Bernstein and W. Steven Barnett

While the link between schooling and health has been well established, the direct and indirect effects of early childhood education programs on health have recently become a more substantial focus of research. This brief summarizes the research evidence, organized by three theoretical models that explain how early childhood education and development (ECED) programs can affect health, in both the long and short term.

These models are sufficiently general that they apply to children and families in both developed and developing nations. We then apply these models and the empirical evidence to derive broad recommendations for early childhood policy.

Our definition of health includes both mental and physical health and indicators related to health such as high-risk behaviors (e.g., smoking and teen pregnancy), positive social-emotional development, immunizations, rates of illness, obesity, dental hygiene, and cognitive growth. Improvements on some of these health indicators, such as on-time immunizations, are direct effects of specific services offered to children attending ECED programs. Other improvements in health outcomes are achieved indirectly, such as reductions in household violence and smoking that result when preschool programs improve executive function and emotion-regulation.

What We Know:

  • Research suggests participation in quality ECED programs can directly improve children’s physical and mental health
  • Research also suggests children’s health improves as a result of the impact ECED programs have on their parents
  • ECED programs can increase children’s cognitive and social-emotional skills in the short-term, which can lead to improved health

Policy Recommendations:

  • All children should have access to high-quality preschool and parenting education should begin early in pregnancy with the degree of support based on risk of poor health and developmental outcomes
  • Early education programs should provide screenings and referrals for health, dental, mental health, developmental, vision, and hearing, or facilitate access to these through other programs
  • Every nation (and state) should prioritize high-quality early learning opportunities and other supports for early childhood development
  • Because health habits are formed at an early age, early education programs should be required to provide health, nutrition, and exercise education
  • To combat obesity, programs should prescribe desirable meals, snacks, and exercise; and when needed, offer nutrition supplementation to prevent and reverse effects of malnutrition
  • Pre-K curriculum should include an emphasis on supporting children’s social-emotional development
  • More health-related early education research is needed