Worldwide, a huge source of human potential is lost as children grow up without the benefit of effective investments in their early development. More than 200 million children under 5 years of age are not reaching their full mental, physical, and social developmental potential, says a recent report from The Open University based in the United Kingdom.
Many people associate early interventions to support child development with preschool education. That is only a part of the story in countries where problems like growth stunting, hunger, disease and extreme poverty necessitate early investments that focus on directly improving nutrition and health as well as care and education. With wide variations in the approaches to investments in early development and in children’s environments in the international arena, policy makers around the globe are asking, “How effective are the various programs in improving the development of children and does this vary across countries with very different economic conditions?”
To help answer that, NIEER recently conducted a meta-analysis of studies that looked at 30 interventions with varying approaches in 23 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. What NIEER found is encouraging: Regardless of the type of program, all had moderate positive effects in all domains of child development. The size of the long-term effects is similar to that found in a comprehensive meta-analysis of the U.S. studies. On average, they were about one-quarter to one-third of a standard deviation, with cognitive effects at the higher end, which translates to a gain of about 5 points on an IQ test. Studies that evaluated effects at older ages showed positive effects being sustained through adulthood.
Policymakers want answers to questions like what types of programs are most cost-effective, whether single-focus or combined-focus programs are best, and what treatment dosage is likely to yield the greatest gain in a given set of circumstances. While many of those answers will require further research, our findings shed some light. Interventions providing direct child care and education were more effective than other types of programs, particularly in terms of cognition. Interventions that combined education and care with attention to nutrition or health were more effective than cash transfer programs that gave money to parents in order to achieve a goal such as making sure kids get medical attention or programs that were solely nutritional in nature.
Of the interventions in our study, eight were early education, five were child care, five were nutrition, four were nutrition and education, two were nutrition and child care, one was early education and child care and six were cash transfers. To conduct our analysis, we grouped children’s outcomes from the studies into four domains: cognition, behavior, health, and amount of schooling. For comparison purposes, we constructed a detailed dataset containing information on each outcome that the study measured and the study characteristics such as the type of intervention , when the follow-up occurred, length of intervention, and group targeted (infants/toddlers, pre-k children, etc.). We then explored how the characteristics of the intervention and the target population were associated with cognitive, behavioral, health and schooling child effects.
NIEER’s international meta-analysis is a first step in bringing international research to a common scale and points to the importance of program design in achieving goals. However, further research is needed to generate a better understanding about what dimensions matter, how much and for what reasons, so policy makers can identify the most cost-effective approaches to investing in child development for children growing up in mild to severe financial, educational, and nutritional poverty around the world.
Unfortunately, cost appears to have been greatly neglected in most international evaluations. The benefits analyzed here are only one piece of the puzzle. Early intervention studies would contribute more to policymaking if costs were also estimated so that we could compare interventions on a cost-benefit framework.
Our study, entitled “Benefits of early childhood interventions across the world: (Under) Investing in the very young,” appears in Economics of Education Review.
Assistant Research Professor, NIEER