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Early Education Boosts Prospects of Premature Children
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Early Education Boosts Prospects of Premature Children

Children's Health

Early Education Boosts Prospects of Premature Children

Early Education Boosts Prospects of Premature Children
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A study of children born prematurely finds that those who had intensive early education — in the first three years of life — had higher math and reading scores and fewer behavioral problems than similar children who didn't get the educational boost. The findings are published in the journal Pediatrics.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Every year, 330,000 American babies are born premature. That means they're at risk for later problems in school and in adult life. A study published today in the Journal Pediatrics shows that giving these children extra attention, when they are babies and toddlers, gives them an important advantage years later.

NPR's Richard Knox reports.

RICHARD KNOX reporting: The new study is part of a growing body of evidence that very early enrichment programs, long before kindergarten and even pre preschool, pay off later. What makes this one different is it's the first to focus specifically on children at risk because they were premature and below normal birth weight. Other studies have focused on healthy children who are socio-economically disadvantaged.

The project cost more than $40 million in private foundation money over the past two decades. Dr. Maureen McCormick of the Harvard School of Public Health led the effort.

Dr. MAUREEN MCCORMICK (Professor and Chair Department of Maternal and Child Health, Harvard School of Public Health): The study makes an extremely powerful argument for the use of early childhood education in improving childhood outcomes, even among children who could be quite vulnerable.

KNOX: Nearly a thousand preemies in eight cities were divided into two groups; one was monitored closely. The other got home visits from trained educators when they were babies and toddlers. When they two and three, they also had classroom experience to foster cognitive development, play skills and coordination.

Earlier reports showed the educated preemies had markedly higher IQ's during their early school years. The current report tracks them to age 18. Most had higher reading and math scores and fewer behavioral problems. The exception: those who had been the tiniest preemies, below 4.4 pounds. They lost their earlier gains.

McCormick says the smallest preemies probably need more than three years of extra attention. For the rest, she says the study shows early intervention will be worth the investment.

Dr. MCCORMICK: You're talking about children who are going to cost the school system money, who are not going to do as well in their economic lives, and are more likely to engage in behaviors that are going to get them arrested, or even spend time in jail.

KNOX: But McCormick wouldn't stop at preemies.

Dr. MCCORMICK: In my heart of hearts, I wouldn't draw boundaries. I think it should be available to all children.

KNOX: She reasons that if early education can help these biologically at risk kids, whatever their parents' socio-economic level, it should give a boost to any child

David Olds at the University of Colorado isn't convinced. He points out that the three years of early intervention cost many thousands of dollars per child; exactly how much is a matter of dispute.

Dr. DAVID OLDS (Professor of Pediatrics, Psychiatry, and Preventive Medicine, University of Colorado): I doubt that the high cost is going to be justified by the functional returns that we see in this report. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't do it, but we do need to be cognizant of the cost.

KNOX: Don Bailey, an early education expert at the University North Carolina, says it's not as though the economic benefit of traditional schooling is based on rigorous scientific studies.

Dr. DON BAILEY (Professor of education, University of North Carolina): We don't really ask does kindergarten make a difference when you're age 18. So I think we're putting a pretty high standard on early childhood programs. And for them to be showing even modest differences is impressive.

KNOX: The new study will certainly be used by those who are pushing for earlier childhood education. One influential voice in that debate is James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago. He offers what he calls a pragmatic compromise.

Dr. JAMES HECKMAN (2000 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics, University of Chicago): What we know best and where the evidence is strongest is, target the disadvantage population first, for sure. And if you want to make it universal, then the fee should be based on income.

KNOX: Otherwise, Heckman says, universal schooling for toddlers could break the bank.

Richard Knox, NPR News, Boston.

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