Benefits of early childhood education last into adulthood

Dr Geraldine F.H. McLeod, Associate Professor Joseph M. Boden, and Professor John Horwood

Christchurch Health and Development Study, Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch

Research has clearly shown that participation in early childhood education (ECE) benefits children’s school readiness and social skills (e.g. see here and here).  Once attending school, children who participated in ECE show better outcomes on measures of cognitive ability and academic attainment, and this effect lasts well into adolescence. However, little research has examined how these advantages have translated into adult outcomes.

Of the research that is available, most was conducted in the US, so may or may not apply in the New Zealand context. Further, previous studies have a number of methodological weaknesses, creating doubt as to whether their findings reflect the true situation in the US, let alone New Zealand. This lack of well-designed studies examining long-term outcomes in representative populations makes it difficult to address questions around the long-term outcomes of ECE education.

Our research

To address these questions, the Christchurch Health and Development Study (CHDS) used data gathered during participants’ early childhood, and data capturing those same participants’ adult outcomes at age 30. The CHDS is a study of a group of over 1200 New Zealand children born in Christchurch in 1977 who have (so far) been followed to age 40. This study has published nearly 500 peer-reviewed research papers over its 40-year history, covering a wide range of topics relevant to human health and development. Therefore, the CHDS is well placed to answer questions regarding the long-term benefits of ECE.

In the early 1980’s, the CHDS asked caregivers (usually mothers) about their childcare arrangements during the period when their child was aged 2–5 years, including the type of facility (e.g. Kindergarten) and the number of hours their child participated each week. The most common forms of ECE service were Kindergarten (42% of children) and Playcentre (14% of children). Overall rates of participation in ECE by the cohort were high; just under 95% had participated in some form of ECE by age 5, and nearly one-third participated for two years or longer.

Links between early childhood education and outcomes at age 30

The analyses examined the number of years each child participated in ECE between the ages of 2 and 5 years, and linked this data with their academic and economic outcomes to age 30. Data from 1098 children who had complete ECE participation data were included in the analyses. The two main adulthood outcomes analysed were:

  • Academic attainment, including the number and type of secondary and tertiary qualifications attained. Across the four areas of high school qualifications, tertiary qualifications, and highest level of academic attainment by age 30, the results showed a trend in which longer duration of ECE participation was associated with higher academic achievement. That is, the longer the child participated ECE, the better their secondary and tertiary education outcomes were likely to be.
  • Economic success, including participation in the paid workforce. Similar to the academic attainment outcomes, the economic success areas of working in paid employment, higher occupational status, and income showed the same trends; longer participation in ECE was related to higher levels of economic success by age 30.

It is important to take into account additional factors related to ECE participation that may impact the links between children’s ECE participation and their later academic attainment and economic success. Such factors may include favourable family socioeconomic circumstances, positive child rearing practices, and child characteristics (e.g. gender). Any of these factors may contribute to academic attainment and economic success in adulthood. When we accounted for these factors in our analysis, the magnitude of the ECE participation benefit in terms of educational and employment outcomes was reduced, but there still remained evidence of a benefit for those who had more ECE participation.

So what have we learned?

To put these findings into context, after accounting for family and child background factors, those who had participated in 3 years of ECE:

  • had a 30% increase in attaining high school qualifications
  • had a 50% increase in university degree attainment
  • showed a 15% increase in workforce participation
  • had higher occupational status, and
  • earned up to $7500/year more

at age 30 compared to those who had no of ECE participation.

Overall, this study provides evidence for the long-term academic and economic gains over the life course made by children who had participated in ECE. The results show that overall, these associations were small in effect, but reflect a constellation of positive outcomes from ECE participation that last into adulthood.

Further analysis of this data also showed similar benefits of ECE participation on later adult outcomes across a range of groups in the CHDS sample by gender, ethnicity, family socioeconomic status and parental education. This means that adult outcomes were similar for both males and females, for both Māori and non-Māori, for those from all parts of the socioeconomic spectrum, and for those with differing levels of parental education. Further, longer durations of ECE participation were associated with lower rates of teen pregnancy and offending behaviour in young adulthood.

A changing context

The ECE landscape in Aotearoa NZ has changed dramatically since the CHDS children were born (in 1977), and this should be taken into account when interpreting the results. Specifically, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, relatively few ECE facilities were available. Over the last 40 years, changes in mothers’ attitudes towards returning to work, an increase in ECE providers, and Government initiatives to encourage the use of ECE services have seen an increase in the number of children attending ECE. In addition, the educational landscape has also changed for children during their adolescence, with the qualifications framework transforming in 1990 to the National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEA). These impacts are likely to have affected both the number and type of early education facilities available today, as well as the types of educational qualifications that are available for students to undertake.

While the results of our research likely reflect the historical context of the ECE environment in the early 1980’s and the Christchurch population base the children had come from, the findings are possibly from the best long-term collection of data on ECE participation and adult outcomes in New Zealand. The CHDS database has provided evidence that ECE can provide long-term academic achievement and economic benefits to children through into adulthood. In addition, the study has shown that the benefits of ECE education are accrued by all children who attend ECE; irrespective of their ethnicity, family background and individual characteristics.  This research has shown that ECE education is an effective tool for improving the lives of New Zealanders, and has underscored the importance of adequate funding and provision in this sector.

The research on which this blog post is based was published in the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, NZARE’s official journal (a Springer Education publication):

McLeod, G. F. H., Horwood, L. J., Boden, J. M., & Fergusson, D. M. (2018). Early childhood education and later educational attainment and socioeconomic wellbeing outcomes to age 30. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 53(2), 257-273. doi:10.1007/s40841-018-0106-7

Geri McLeod 2017.jpgGeraldine McLeod has a PhD in public health and is a Research Fellow at the Christchurch Health and Development Study. Her interests include the psychosocial causes and consequences of overweight/obesity and the primary prevention of sunburn.


Joe Boden 2017.jpgAssociate Professor Joseph Boden has a PhD in Psychology and is the Deputy Director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study. His interests include the psychosocial causes and consequences of substance use and mental health problems.


John Horwood 2017.jpgProfessor John Horwood is the Director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study. His interests include life course trajectories and functional outcomes of children born with very low birthweight.



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