Australia’s national education evidence body

Research gives insight into the power of early years education to improve outcomes for Australia’s most vulnerable children

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A view from above of children in a early learning setting on the floor looking at a handwritten book with images.

Written by Dr Anne Kennedy, early childhood education consultant and member of AERO's Board

By the time they start school, gaps are already apparent between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. In learning and cognition as well as social and emotional development, the gaps may increase without effective and costly later intervention.

In 2007 the Children’s Protection Society, a child and family services agency (CPS, now trading as Kids First), and a group of researchers from the University of Melbourne embarked on a bold and innovative research project. 

The Early Years Education Research Program (EYERP) brought together professionals with expertise in economics, statistical analysis, clinical research methodologies, social work, infant mental health, project management and early childhood curriculum and pedagogy.

The research project aimed to test the hypothesis that a three-year, high quality, early education program for young children living with severe family stress and social disadvantage, would enable them to enter school as confident learners, developmentally and educationally equal to their peers. The project was innovative and bold in several ways.

The project was designed as a randomised controlled trial (RCT), a design rarely used in early childhood education in Australia. RCTs are helpful because they generate rigorous evidence of the effectiveness of an approach. As part of the RCT, children were assessed before, during and after the program.

The program being studied specifically targeted families and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some researchers have suggested that targeted approaches may not be effective because families and children from disadvantaged backgrounds may feel marginalised or face difficulties accessing affordable, high quality early childhood programs.

Our research showed that this was not the case. Retention rates for families and children in our research project were high. Importantly, after 24 months of the intervention there were large positive impacts on children’s cognitive and non-cognitive development – primarily IQ, where there was an average 7-8 points improvement from below average, to average.

Positive impacts were also identified with protective factors related to resilience and social-emotional development. There was also some evidence that the approach improves children’s language skills and lowers the psychological distress of their primary caregivers. These findings can be trusted because of rigor in the research design and commitment to program fidelity (Read the research reports).

The power of the EYERP is that it provides greater insight into the characteristics of high-quality education and care. This evidence supports implementing practices that will help improve outcomes for children experiencing severe family stress and social disadvantage.

Achieving remarkable outcomes for children in the intervention group in the RCT is just the beginning for this research project. Our next phase aims to replicate the approach in several new sites to determine if the same outcomes can be achieved with similar cohorts of children.

Replication with fidelity is often the missing link in early education research interventions. We need to replicate to confirm that the approach works in different contexts; to identify evidence-informed modifications to the approach, and to make recommendations to government for a stepped scaling up of the approach.

Education equity gaps demand that we do something bold, evidence informed, and much earlier for children living with significant social disadvantage and family stress factors.

About Dr Anne Kennedy

Dr Anne Kennedy is an experienced and respected consultant in early childhood education. Anne’s consultancy work follows extensive experience as an early childhood teacher and academic working in teacher education programs in Australia, Sweden, Singapore and the USA. Anne is an Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne, Graduate School of Education, a non-executive Director of The Front Project, a member of the Victorian Children’s Council and a Trustee of the Creswick Foundation.

Anne’s involvement in this research project has confirmed her belief in the importance of robust evidence for supporting policy and practice reforms to transform early education in order to improve children’s outcomes and life trajectories. 

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