Early-childhood stimulation improves earnings of disadvantaged children, study finds

Susan Walker/Courtesy

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A study published Friday led by a campus researcher shows that disadvantaged children can earn more as adults with positive cognitive stimulation at a young age.

The 20-year-long study found that a group of growth-stunted children in Kingston, Jamaica, who were exposed to positive parental intervention experienced 25 percent more in average earnings when compared to a control group. Paul Gertler, who led the research, said the intervention also doubled as a long-term poverty-reduction program, improving the cognitive skills that would help the children in the future.

“To become really strong and physically fit, your body has to have good nutrition,” Gertler, a professor at the Haas School of Business and the School of Public Health, said. “In order to translate that good nutrition into strength and ability, you have to exercise. The brain is the same way. It needs to be exercised to learn.”

The study, started by Sally Grantham-McGregor of University College London and Susan Walker of the University of the West Indies, began in 1986 and included 129 growth-stunted children aged 9 to 24 months. These children were sorted into a treatment group and a control group. The former received cognitive stimulation every week for two years, while the control group did not.

The intervention was designed to strengthen early language development, confidence and the relationship between parent and child. A health worker would visit families weekly to foster positive interaction between the mother and child.

Christel Vermeersch, one of the study’s researchers and a senior economist at the World Bank, said the idea behind the study was to give disadvantaged children the skills they need to succeed when their brains are in their most plastic state.

“(With) stimulating the brain early, especially with kids who don’t have enough at home, what you’ll find along the way is that it has an implication on social and emotional skills, health, crime and eventually on their earning potential,” Vermeersch said.

The researchers followed up with the children’s progress every few years by meeting with the parents and administering tests to the children. About two decades later, researchers measured the impact of the intervention by looking at the average earnings of 105 participants from the treatment group against those of the control group.

Joan Lombardi, an international expert on child development and social policy, said the study is particularly important because it was one of the few longitudinal projects conducted outside of the United States and encouraged policy changes that impact children earlier in their lives.

“What this study tells us is, whether you live in Jamaica or Sacramento, it’s important for policy makers to pay attention to the early years and begin those health and education investments early,” Lombardi said.

Contact Natalie Meier at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @nat_meier.