Critical Investments Should Target First Eight Years of Life, Report Finds

Investing in the education, health, and social and emotional development of children in the first eight years of their lives is critical to a child's cognitive development, especially for children who grow up in low-income families and communities of color, a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation argues.

The latest in Casey's KIDS COUNT policy report series, The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success (20 pages, PDF), found that children who enter kindergarten with below-average language and cognitive skills can catch up with the help of effective interventions — but only if they are physically healthy and have strong social and emotional skills. The report features highlights from a new analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal study — an effort to track thirteen thousand children who were in kindergarten in 1998-99 — which found that only 36 percent of third-graders had developed age-appropriate cognitive skills — and just 19 percent of those in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, compared with 50 percent of those in families with incomes above that level, and only 14 percent of African-American and 19 percent of Latino children, compared with 48 percent of their white peers. Low-income and minority children also lag others on such indicators as physical well-being, social and emotional growth, and level of school engagement. Research has shown that children who do not meet these developmental milestones often struggle to catch up in school and graduate on time and are less likely to achieve economic success and stability.

To help all children succeed in life, the report argues, classroom learning should be integrated with other aspects of child development to create opportunities for children to develop the full array of needed competencies. To that end, the report calls for state and federal policies that support parents; increase access to high-quality birth-through-age-8 programs, beginning with investments that target low-income children; and encourage the development of comprehensive, integrated programs and data systems that address various aspects of child development and support children's transition to elementary school.