While many people may believe that the early years of a child’s life reflect little of what the child will ultimately become and see the later years as more defining, in fact, the opposite is true. Early childhood is a time of critical importance in the development of a child. Over 90% of brain development takes place between birth and five years, and numerous research studies continue to demonstrate that the future success of a child rests on early experiences. These early experiences foster long-term cognitive and academic skills as well as social and behavioral outcomes.

In the United States, 1 in 2 low income 5-year-olds (5.8 million) are not ready for Kindergarten, and 2.5 million 4-year-olds don’t have access to publicly funded preschool. These children lack the core, foundational skills that are necessary for them to achieve success in school and in life. A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences quantifies the cost of providing high quality early education for all children at $140 billion annually just 0.75% of GDP. However, the US currently invests just $29 billion. This underinvestment has led to a range of issues later in life for children, including learning delays, behavioral issues, underperformance in school, dropout, and a range of health and mental health challenges.

Children serve as powerful motivators for parents to improve their own economic well-being, and an investment in early childhood programs can break the intergenerational cycle of poverty by putting parents back in the workforce and ensuring future economic success for children. Effective early childhood programs, such high-quality early education, home visiting, and parenting education as well as dual generation programs that support school readiness and family economic stability, have yielded 7-10% returns on investments. Economists estimate that the potential ROI on investments early in a child’s life could be as high as 16%–a cost-effective strategy for anyone looking for social returns.

Society – caregivers, educators, communities, policymakers – play an important role in promoting and supporting this development through prevention and intervention in the critical “brain building” phase of a child’s life, when services are more effective and less costly. Investment in early childhood ensures that children have experiences that promote school readiness, develop stable, nurturing relationships with caring adults, and develop age-appropriate physical, cognitive, social and emotional skills.  Ultimately, well-placed investments in early childhood can break inter-generational cycles of poverty and set children on a path to living their full potential.

*Special thanks to Sunindiya Bhalla, of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley who contributed to the content of this blog