A multi-ethnic group of babies are indoors in a daycare center. They are wearing casual clothing. They are playing with toys along with their babysitter. One baby is crawling on the floor and playing with a car in the foreground.
Studies have shown the best time to try to influence a person’s life path is before the age of three © Getty

Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman raves about a 1980s programme for growth-stunted toddlers in Jamaica. Trained health aides visited mothers living in poverty for an hour a week and coached them in how to stimulate their children through play.

The intervention, run by British researcher Sally Grantham-McGregor, was simple but it changed those toddlers’ lives. Monitoring into adulthood shows they have gone on to do better at school, earn more money and enjoy better psychosocial skills than their origins would have predicted. They were also less prone to committing crime.

In short, training the parents while their children were still small seemed to be a magic bullet for a wide range of social problems. “Programmes like this are cheap, effective and don’t require large infrastructure,” says Prof Heckman, who, at 73, runs the Center for the Economics of Human Development at the University of Chicago in his hometown.

Prof Heckman won his Nobel prize in 2000, shared with Daniel McFadden, for his work in microeconometrics. Since then, he has applied his expertise to the field of early childhood development (ECD), the premise of which is that the best time to try to influence a person’s life path is before the age of three, while the brain is still developing and can be easily moulded. Simple steps taken during early childhood can transform a child’s prospects.

Prof Heckman estimates that another ECD programme, the high-quality Perry pre-school for poor African-American children in Michigan in the 1960s, gave society a return of $7-$12 for every dollar invested. The participants went on to rely less on welfare, commit less crime and be more productive than their peers who didn’t follow the programme. In short, pre-school proved a lot more cost-effective than university or prison.

Early childhood development is a rare policy that excites policymakers on both the left (which hates inequality) and the right (which hates funding unproductive adults). So far, so good — but how is it best achieved? Few have thought harder about this question than Prof Heckman.

“Basically, the field is overrun by advocates,” he complains. “A lot of individuals have thrown money into it.” He says the evidence suggests that many programmes are not “as powerful as some people had hoped”. Prof Heckman is keen to find out why. By gathering data on the children in several early-childhood programmes, often tracking them into adulthood, he has learnt about what works. Listening to him, it is possible to distil four lessons about ECD.

• Target only disadvantaged children

Lesson one is to aim programmes only at disadvantaged children. Most privileged parents already know — from their own life experiences or from parenting books — that they should read to their children and play with them. They can afford to feed their children healthy food, and they start stimulating them before birth, explains Prof Heckman.

For many poorer parents, however, “reading to the child, stimulating a child, however commonsensical that is, comes as a revelation”, says Prof Heckman. Yet since almost all parents desperately want their children to thrive, most drink in the advice once they receive it. Often the tips can be very simple: for example, to sit on the floor to play with a child, who learns more by being able to see your face.

Prof Heckman’s belief in targeted programmes makes him sceptical of New York’s “naive” plan, announced last year, to offer free pre-school to all three-year-olds. “The argument for universality is just political,” he says — free pre-school is of most benefit not only to poorer children but also to poorer parents, who can use the spare time to educate themselves or earn more money for the family.

• Parental input trumps genetics

His second lesson: “It’s not about genetics. It’s about having input from parents who are engaged.” You can send children to the most expensive preschools and it won’t help much without good parenting, he says. The importance of hands-on parenting “has not fully made its way into the consciousness of some advocates, but it’s so obvious”.

• Keep it simple

The corollary is lesson three: “You don’t need lots of money or MBAs.” Just sending relatively low-skilled people to train parents can be enough, as it was in Jamaica.

• Girls are different to boys

Finally, lesson four: boys and girls are different. When Prof Heckman, his research assistant Jorge Luis Garcia and others evaluated two 1970s childcare programmes in North Carolina, they found that boys benefited more than girls from good childcare (largely because their health improved and their crime levels fell). However, boys also suffered more from bad preschools. “Girls are more resilient,” he concludes.

Overall, Prof Heckman is despondent about his own country’s take-up of his cherished ideas. “The argument that should be made is [one that links] investment in children to growth in the economy,” he says. “But there is a shortsightedness to the American political discussion. For many politicians, this is too distant — there are too many steps to complete.”

Outside the US, Prof Heckman praises Brazil, Colombia and China for having good ECD programmes but notes that “in India, as far as I can tell, there’s no activity” [in the field].

His model country for ECD is Denmark. By focusing on under-threes, the Danes have sharply boosted cognitive skills among disadvantaged children, he says. Even so, Prof Heckman adds, full equality has not been achieved. Children of less-educated Danish mothers still enter adulthood with considerably lower qualifications than their privileged peers. Even in the best of cases, ECD can only do so much.

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