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Getting Ahead: Why Preschool Benefits the Brain

Early education gives long-term advantages.

One problem with the wise saying, ‘Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him to fish and feed him for life,' is that it offers no guidance on when this teaching should occur. A new study suggests that if you wait until he's already hungry, it may be too late. The best time to provide someone with valuable life skills may be before kindergarten.

A group of researchers recently published the results of a 25-year study looking at the effects of preschool and up to six years of follow-up service for a group of more than 1000 children in inner-city Chicago. Compared with children who did not receive preschool education and follow-up services, the children who did go on to attain more education and higher incomes, were more likely to have health care and less likely to have criminal records. Males and the children of high school dropouts showed the greatest benefits from preschool education. What benefit might preschool offer?

One of the most important findings about brain development shows that the brain has critical periods for learning. If you deprive a brain of information during this crucial time, it may never develop properly; the opportunity is lost. On the other hand, some early experiences can forever enhance the development of a young brain, and potentially change behavior across an individual's lifespan.

In the 1930s, Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel-prize winning ethologist and zoologist, had a new hypothesis to test. He knew that goslings followed around their mother goose from the time they could walk. What he didn't know was if geese hatched with an instinctual program in their brain that caused them to follow their biological mother, or whether they learned at a young age to follow whoever was around. To test his idea, he took two sets of eggs and allowed them to hatch. For the first, he allowed the biological mother to care for them as usual. As always, the goslings trailed their mother wherever she went. For the second group, Lorenz nurtured them himself. They followed him as closely as if he had laid their eggs.

Konrad Lorenz

To see if his gaggle truly recognized him, Lorenz put all the goslings into the same nest, briefly separating them from their "mothers." He then allowed the goslings to reunite with either him or the mother goose. Every gosling from the first group went for the goose, but every gosling from the second went straight back to Lorenz. Goslings did not hatch with an instinct for identifying their biological mother. Instead, they instinctually learned during a critical period—about 12 hours after hatching—who their "mother" was, even if it was a human.

Lorenz' study provides some of the earliest evidence for critical periods of development and learning. More than any other animal, we humans require intensive learning from the time we're born until adulthood, and if you're like me, even as an adult you still have a lot to learn. If we don't reach children during their early years, it may be too late to teach some of them important skills they'll need to become successful.

Although preschool does not teach market economics or neuroscience, it provides necessary skills that are essential to getting—and keeping—a job later in life. Most important, children learn how to socialize with peers, manage stress and solve problems. At age 28, the adults who received preschool educations years before had significantly higher job prestige, earnings and socioeconomic status.

In addition to boosting the life-course prospects of the children who received preschool education, the program also saves society money. It costs around $8,000 to send a child to preschool for a half day during the school year, but the estimated benefits in terms of increased productivity and reduced cost to the criminal justice system put the savings at just over $80,000, a ten-fold return on investment.

The struggling economy has everyone looking for ways to increase productivity, including supplying the workforce with drugs that rev up mental output, so-called cognitive enhancers. The idea is that an office running on stimulants, such as the ADHD-medication, Adderall, might outperform and produce jobs at a faster rate than one running on coffee and hard work alone. Yet, based on the results of the Chicago study, we have evidence to believe Stanford law professor Henry Greely, ethicist of biomedical sciences, when he said,"The single best cognitive enhancer in the world is primary education."

Now if we could just find a cognitive enhancer for members of Congress.


Arthur J. Reynolds, Judy A. Temple, Suh-Ruu Ou, Irma A. Arteaga, and Barry A. B. White. School-Based Early Childhood Education and Age-28 Well-Being: Effects by Timing, Dosage, and Subgroups. Science 15 July 2011: 360-364.

Jeffrey Mervis. Past Successes Shape Effort to Expand Early Intervention. Science 19 August 2011: 952-956.

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