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HeartMind e-News: Teach, Learn, Lead

A monthly publication dedicated to trauma-informed, compassionate school practices that help educators, students, and families move toward a sense of wholeness and well-being


How to Maintain Gains Made in Early Childhood Programs

Pritha Sengupta, CEI Intern, and Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

Federal and state spending on early childhood care and education grew by 12.8% from 2019 to 2020 (National Conference of State Legislators, 2020). In 2020, US government spending on early childcare was $34 billion, along with an additional household spending of $42 billion (Economic Policy Institute, 2020). Many of these programs have focused on children and families living in poverty. Global organizations like the OECD, UNICEF, and the World Bank all call for increasing focus and investment in the early childhood period, with the belief that investment in this period yields high returns. Given the global and national focus as well as expenditures on early childhood interventions through the last decade, some natural questions arise.

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Are Early Childhood Programs Effective?

How effective are these early childhood intervention programs? How long do their effects last? Does the investment in the early childhood period pay off in the long term? It is one thing to teach reading and math and another to plan instruction so that students apply their learning in a variety of situations. 

Educational researchers have often focused on the “instructional dynamics,” or the interactions that occur during teaching and learning (Ball & Forzani, 2007). Certainly, it makes sense for educators to increase positive interactions with students. In early childhood, we also know that using learning centers, adding puppets or music, and focusing on rhyming, for example, are strategies that can make learning more fun and effective. This is particularly important during preschool years. We want students to be excited about learning – to be eager to be in class. However, there is more to the story. 

Dinosaurs, Climate Change, and Related Learning

Let’s consider a lesson on dinosaurs. Now, that can be an exciting topic for young learners. There are amazing images and fascinating stories about dinosaurs, including many animated videos, movies, and even dinosaur toys. Students who sit in rapt attention learning about Tyrannosaurus rex, carnivores, and herbivores could also benefit from imaginative play with toy dinosaurs in learning centers. Yet, these lessons and activities may or may not meet an additional criteria – and one we believe is critical for long-term learning, retention, and maintaining academic gains – using additional strategies to ensure that early learning is maintained.

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Many lessons show promising results in the short term, which unfortunately disappear over time. Drew Bailey and colleagues (2017) at the University of California, Irvine, refer to this as a “fadeout effect.” This fade-out effect is seen across academic subjects. What is happening? Let’s turn again to our lesson on dinosaurs. Perhaps as students learned about T-rex, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops, they also learned about meat eaters and vegetarians. Perhaps, teachers also covered the mysteries of the Ice Age and climate change. Helping students to understand more about the surrounding context will enhance understanding of related concepts. In this case, early learning about dinosaurs can set the foundation for later lessons on temperature, weather, and its impact on our habitat and survival. When lessons include information on surrounding context, they help students connect the dots, leading to greater long-term retention and preparing them for more advanced learning.

Subsequent Environments

Another way to ensure that learning sticks is to consider the “subsequent environments.” Simply stated, this means that a preschool teacher would relate a lesson on dinosaurs to the kindergarten and first grade curriculum. Of course, this needs to be reciprocal, so that kindergarten and first grade teachers will build from what students were taught in preschool, using care to not simply “reteach” the concepts and skills that were introduced in preschool.

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High Quality Schools

Moreover, for gains to be maintained, students need to attend high-quality elementary schools. This is particularly problematic for low-income communities. As Jenkins et al. (2018) suggest, "When children in low-income areas leave preschool and begin kindergarten in resource-poor schools, such schools may be ill-equipped to build upon the skills children gained during preschool."

Jenkins’ review of data from 384 preschool centers found that effective professional development of elementary teachers helped to maintain the early gains made in preschool. Of all the factors studied, this professional development was most related to maintaining gains.

What of Other Societal Factors?

Ansari and colleagues (2020) and others have indicated a need for alignment between pre-K and elementary instruction (Brooks-Gunn, et al., 2016; Stipek et al., 2017). However, to create truly sustaining environments, there is also a need to improve the economic sufficiency of communities so that children experience a holistic environment promoting their achievement throughout life. High-quality preschool is insufficient in and of itself. Non-educational interventions aimed at improving community-wide social, cultural, and economic conditions are also critical. This can look like poverty alleviation programs, providing adult education programs, improving representation of people of color in underrepresented fields like STEM, arts, in the media etc.

The contexts outside of classrooms play a huge role in determining outcomes within classrooms. We know that investments in the early childhood period can pay off with benefits seen across one’s lifetime (Shonkoff, 2009). Especially for children living in adversity, the early childhood period offers a unique opportunity to create trajectories for later growth and even prosperity. To ensure that the investments made with young children have long lasting impacts, it is vital that educators look beyond their preschool classrooms. To sustain the greatest gains, students living in poverty and with adversity also need better access to resources, quality elementary and secondary schools, and career and economic opportunities. In determining strategies to prevent fade-out, the conclusions of Beth Maloy and colleagues in a report to the Learning Policy Institute, are worth considering:

Finally, although preschool quality is important, even the highest quality preschool cannot inoculate children from the detrimental effects of poverty or poor elementary and secondary schools. Sustained benefits likely require investments in children and their families that are also sustained from preschool through grade school and beyond. (2019, p. 10).


Ansari, A., Pianta, R. C., Whittaker, J. V., Vitiello, V. E., & Ruzek, E. A. (2020). Persistence and convergence: The end of kindergarten outcomes of pre-K graduates and their nonattending peers. Developmental Psychology.

Ball, D. L., & Forzani, F. M. (2007). What makes education research educational?. Educational Researcher36(9), 529.

Bailey, D., Duncan, G. J., Odgers, C. L., & Yu, W. (2017). Persistence and fadeout in the impacts of child and adolescent interventions. Journal of research on educational effectiveness10(1), 7-39.

Brooks-Gunn, J., Markman-Pithers, L., & Rouse, C. E. (2016). Starting early: Introducing the issue. The Future of Children, 3-19.

Gould, E., & Blair, H. (2020, January 15). Who’s paying now?The explicit and implicit costs of the current early care and education system. Economic Policy Institute. 

Jenkins, J. M., Watts, T. W., Magnuson, K., Gershoff, E. T., Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., & Duncan, G. J. (2018). Do high-quality kindergarten and first-grade classrooms mitigate preschool fadeout?. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness11(3), 339-374.

Meloy, B., Gardner, M., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2019). Untangling the evidence on preschool effectiveness: Insights for policymakers. Learning Policy Institute.

Mincic, M. (2020, September 1). Early Care and Education State Budget Actions Fiscal Year 2020. National Conference of State Legislatures.

Shonkoff, J. P., & Richmond, J. B. (2009). Investment in early childhood development lays the foundation for a prosperous and sustainable society. Encyclopedia on early childhood development, 1-5.

Stipek, D., Clements, D., Coburn, C., Franke, M., & Farran, D. (2017). PK-3: What does it mean for instruction?. Social Policy Report30(2).

Resource List

See the references below for additional research on how to maintain gains made in preschool programs.

Bailey, D. H., Jenkins, J. M., & Alvarez-Vargas, D. (2020). Complementarities between early educational intervention and later educational quality? A systematic review of the sustaining environments hypothesis. Developmental Review56, 100910.

Bus, A. G., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (1999). Phonological awareness and early reading: A meta-analysis of experimental training studies. Journal of educational psychology91(3), 403.

Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., Wolfe, C. B., & Spitler, M. E. (2013). Longitudinal evaluation of a scale-up model for teaching mathematics with trajectories and technologies: Persistence of effects in the third year. American Educational Research Journal50(4), 812-850.

Dodge, K. A., Bai, Y., Ladd, H. F., & Muschkin, C. G. (2017). Impact of North Carolina's early childhood programs and policies on educational outcomes in elementary school. Child development88(3), 996-1014.

Lipsey, M. W., Farran, D. C., & Durkin, K. (2018). Effects of the Tennessee Prekindergarten Program on children’s achievement and behavior through third grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly45, 155-176.

Moote, J., Archer, L., DeWitt, J., & MacLeod, E. (2020). Science capital or STEM capital? Exploring relationships between science capital and technology, engineering, and maths aspirations and attitudes among young people aged 17/18. Journal of Research in Science Teaching57(8), 1228-1249.

Puma, M., Bell, S., Cook, R., Heid, C., Broene, P., Jenkins, F., Mashburn, A., & Downer, J. (2012). Third grade follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study: Final report. OPRE Report 2012-45. Administration for Children & Families.

Smith, T. M., Cobb, P., Farran, D. C., Cordray, D. S., & Munter, C. (2013). Evaluating math recovery: Assessing the causal impact of a diagnostic tutoring program on student achievement. American Educational Research Journal50(2), 397-428.

Watts, T. W., Gandhi, J., Ibrahim, D. A., Masucci, M. D., & Raver, C. C. (2018). The Chicago School Readiness Project: Examining the long-term impacts of an early childhood intervention. PloS one13(7).

Wells, R. S., Manly, C. A., Kommers, S., & Kimball, E. (2019). Narrowed gaps and persistent challenges: Examining rural-nonrural disparities in postsecondary outcomes over time. American Journal of Education126(1), 1-31.