Preschool education programs

Evidence Rating  
Scientifically Supported
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  
Community in Action

Expanding a Model Preschool Program in UT

Fri, 12/27/2019 - 19:39

When a model preschool program in Utah’s Salt Lake County showed early results—improving kindergarten readiness and grade school performance—United Way of Salt Lake (UWSL)...

Preschool education programs are center-based interventions that foster children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. Programs usually focus on children who are at least three years old but not yet old enough to enter formal schooling1. Children from families with low incomes are less likely to be enrolled in preschool than children from families with higher incomes. African-American children and children from families with low incomes are also the most likely to attend low quality preschool programs2.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased academic achievement

  • Improved cognitive skills

  • Improved social emotional skills

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Increased high school completion

  • Reduced delinquent behavior

  • Improved healthy behaviors

  • Improved mental health

  • Reduced obesity

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that preschool participation increases academic achievement and improves children’s cognitive and social skills341, 5, 6. Effects are strongest immediately following preschool, but can persist1, 5, especially if combined with continued support in later school years7. Additional research is needed to determine which components of comprehensive preschool programs (e.g., teacher training, curriculum, class size, child assessment, additional services offered, etc.) are most important for improving child outcomes5, 8.

Preschool improves cognitive abilities (e.g., general knowledge, language, and math skills) and educational success among participating children1, 34, 5. Gains in cognitive skills and academic achievement are larger for students from families with low incomes than for students from families with high incomes9, 10.

Preschool participation also improves social-emotional abilities; such gains can persist after cognitive effects fade3. In some circumstances, preschool participation can modestly reduce social deviance in adolescence31. Preschool programs also appear to reduce obesity, and improve children’s mental health and social competence11. Programs support healthy behaviors as children age, but have no impact on chronic disease outcomes12, 13.

Comprehensive preschool programs that include direct teaching and child-initiated activities, also called free play, increase literacy and language development; programs that focus solely on child-initiated activities do not14. Child-directed play is important, however, as it contributes to healthy cognitive, social, and physical development15. Explicit academic instruction, low staff-to-student ratios3, instructional support, and rich student/teacher interactions are components of effective preschool programs6.

Part- and full-day programs and 1- and 2-year programs have demonstrated positive effects10. Overall, higher quality programs have modestly stronger and more sustained effects than lower quality programs10, 16. High quality preschool programs in low income or racial/ethnic minority communities can reduce educational achievement gaps5, 9 in some circumstances1.

The estimated economic return for full-scale, high quality preschool ranges from $2-$4 for every $1 invested10. Models suggest that providing high quality, free preschool programs for children from families with low socio-economic status generates positive net gains to society17

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

In FY 2015-16, 32 states and Washington DC increased their investments in preschool education programs, while 8 states decreased preschool funding. Overall, state funding increased by nearly $755 million, 12%, from FY 2014-1518.

At the federal level, Preschool Development Grants (PDGs) were awarded to 18 states in FY 2014; 5 states were given development grants to build or enhance preschool program infrastructure, and 13 states were awarded expansion grants to expand high quality preschool to 4 year olds from families with low and moderate incomes19. These PDGs provided more than $100 million in funds, to serve more than 33,000 children. The US Department of Education also launched the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which has awarded more than $1 billion for projects in 20 states to focus on improving programs, including preschool, for young children from families with low incomes, training the early childhood education workforce, and measuring outcomes and progress20.

Many families pay for preschool out of pocket; however, publicly funded programs can be made available for families with low incomes. As of 2015, more than 2.5 million 4 year olds do not have access to publicly funded preschool programs2.

Implementation Resources

Head Start - Head Start. An office of the Administration for Children and Families. Early childhood learning & knowledge center (ECLKC).

HighScope - HighScope. Inspiring educators to inspire children.

CN-ROA 2015 - California Newsreel (CN). The raising of America: Early childhood and the future of our nation. 2015.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 Burger 2010* - Burger K. How does early childhood care and education affect cognitive development? An international review of the effects of early interventions for children from different social backgrounds. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 2010;25(2):140-65.

2 US ED-Preschool 2015 - US Department of Education (US ED). A matter of equity: Preschool in America. 2015.

3 Camilli 2010* - Camilli G, Vargas S, Ryan S, Barnett WS. Meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record. 2010;112(3):579-620.

4 Manning 2010* - Manning M, Homel R, Smith C. A meta-analysis of the effects of early developmental prevention programs in at-risk populations on non-health outcomes in adolescence. Children and Youth Services Review. 2010;32(4):506-19.

5 CG-TFR Education - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Task Force Recommends (TFR) education programs to promote health equity.

6 Garcia-Carrion 2016* - García-Carrión R, Villardón-Gallego L. Dialogue and interaction in early childhood education: A systematic review. REMIE - Multidisciplinary Journal of Educational Research. 2016;6(1):51-76.

7 Brookings-Sawhill 2015 - Sawhill IV, Karpilow Q. How much could we improve children’s life chances by intervening early and often? Washington, DC: Center on Children and Families, Brookings Institution; 2015.

8 Mathematica-Caronongan 2016 - Caronongan P, Kirby G, Boller K, Modlin E, Lyskawa J. Assessing the implementation and cost of high quality early care and education: A review of the literature - OPRE Report 2016-31. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS), Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation; 2016.

9 Duncan 2013* - Duncan GJ, Sojourner AJ. Can intensive early childhood intervention programs eliminate income-based cognitive and achievement gaps? Journal of Human Resources. 2013;48(4):945-968.

10 RAND-Karoly 2016 - Karoly LA, Auger A. Informing investments in preschool quality and access in Cincinnati: Evidence of impacts and economic returns from national, state, and local preschool programs. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2016.

11 D’Onise 2010a* - D'Onise K, Lynch JW, Sawyer MG, McDermott RA. Can preschool improve child health outcomes? A systematic review. Social Science & Medicine. 2010;70(9):1423-1440.

12 D’Onise 2010* - D'Onise K, McDermott RA, Lynch JW. Does attendance at preschool affect adult health? A systematic review. Public Health. 2010;124(9):500-511.

13 Englund 2015* - Englund MM, White B, Reynolds AJ, Schweinhart LJ, Campbell FA. Health outcomes of the Abecedarian, Child–Parent Center, and HighScope Perry Preschool programs. In Reynolds AJ, Rolnick AJ, Temple JA, eds. Health and Education in Early Childhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2015:257-292.

14 BEE-Chambers 2016 - Chambers B, Cheung ACK, Slavin RE. Literacy and language outcomes of comprehensive and developmental-constructivist approaches to early childhood education: A systematic review. Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE). Educational Research Review. 2016;18:88–111.

15 Belknap 2014* - Belknap E, Hazler R. Empty playgrounds and anxious children. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health. 2014;9(2):210–231.

16 Keys 2013* - Keys TD, Farkas G, Burchinal MR, et al. Preschool center quality and school readiness: Quality effects and variation by demographic and child characteristics. Child Development. 2013;84(4):1171-90.

17 NBER-Heckman 2013 - Heckman JJ, Raut LK. Intergenerational long term effects of preschool - Structural estimates from a discrete dynamic programming model. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2013: Working Paper 19077.

18 ECS-Parker 2016 - Parker E, Atchison B, Workman E. State pre-K funding for 2015-16 fiscal year: National trends in state preschool funding: 50-state review. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States (ECS); 2016.

19 US ED-PDG - US Department of Education (US ED). Preschool development grants (PDG).

20 TFAH-Levi 2015 - Levi J, Segal LM, Rayburn J, Martin A, Miller AF. A healthy early childhood action plan: Policies for a lifetime of well-being. Washington, DC: Trust for America’s Health (TFAH); 2015.

Date Last Updated