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Why Early Years Matter

A Crucial Foundation For Success

Third grade is widely acknowledged as a critical benchmark year for future academic success.

A student not reading at grade level in third grade is 4 times more likely to drop out of high school.

And whether they’re proficient readers depends on the quality of their learning experiences in the years prior. Like bricks and mortar, learning builds on prior learning. If the foundation is weak, later achievement will falter.

Studies have repeatedly shown that investment in quality early education are more life- and cost-effective than later remediation. The figure to the right known as “The Heckman Curve”, by Nobel Laureate Prize-winning economist James Heckman, shows clearly how investments in the early years have by far the greatest return. Particularly for disadvantaged children, early education can have returns as high as $7 – $13 for every $1 invested.

Early Deficits Begin Well Before Kindergarten

Deficits in early literacy and math begin well before kindergarten with skill gaps widening along family income lines from as early as 9 months of age and growing exponentially by 24 months. [3]

Research has clearly demonstrated that early literacy and math skills as well as early workforce skills (such as cooperation and paying attention) at kindergarten entry predict future academic success. [3] [5] [6]

Early Brain Development Plays a Critical Role

In the first 3 years of life, a child’s brain is the most impressionable, forming one million new neural connections every second to create the “wiring” that becomes the foundation upon which all later learning is built.

Adult responsiveness is key to young child brain development. Known as “Serve and Return” interaction, when an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, critical neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain.

Children who face adversity, like poverty, often don’t get appropriate adult responsiveness. In these cases the developing brain is disrupted, and the child is at far greater risk for subsequent physical, cognitive and emotional impairment.


For young children, the reality is that every environment — whether home, preschool, childcare or elementary school — is a learning environment. They key is that whatever the context, children are getting the emotional and cognitive development and critical foundation necessary for success in school and life.

Tennessee can make a giant leap forward in early education outcomes by choosing policies that:

Support parents to be their child’s first effective teacher
Expand access to high quality childcare and preschool
Improve instructional quality PreK- 3rd grade
Build strong accountability and continuous improvement systems for all early education programs.
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