A Perspective on Perry Preschool: Intergenerational Effects

The latest study released by Professor Heckman has significant implications for the early childhood field. In this opinion piece written by Ounce President, Diana Rauner shares some of her insights on this new research and why it matters.

To break the cycle of poverty, start early

This week, Nobel laureate James Heckman released a groundbreaking study on the Perry Preschool Project, an intervention in the 1960s and whose participants are now in their late 50s. Long-awaited in the early childhood field, this research followed at-risk children from low-income families and the impact of early childhood education on their life trajectories. The conclusion is powerful: the improvements in life outcomes for the first generation leads to better life outcomes for their children and, one can expect, for future generations.

The promise of early childhood education has always been its long-term impact on the lives of those fortunate to experience high-quality education. During the first few years of life, children build the capacity to ask for and receive help, manage frustration, persist at tasks, and control their impulses. These skills are developed through interactions with others and lay the groundwork for more complex social and cognitive skills as children grow.

The ability to self-regulate, control one’s impulses and other social/emotional skills have led to better long term life outcomes for our youngest learners: greater high school and college completion rates, higher earnings, better health and less involvement in the criminal justice system, all of which have significant benefits to society as well.

During the two short years of preschool, the children in the Perry program learned skills that they then used in future years to build more skills. At every point of analysis, the Perry Preschool participants have been found to have greater executive function and a more positive outlook on life. By age 50, the participants had used these skills to become better citizens and employees and better husbands and fathers. Their children were therefore more likely to grow up in two-parent families.

Although our work has been anchored in scientific research for decades, Dr. Heckman’s recent findings validate what early childhood leaders clearly know and understand: starting early is the key to a lifetime of success.

The outcomes of the Perry study make it clear that access to high-quality early childhood education and interventions, parental resources, and systems of care are game changers. These experiences will have a positive impact on the long-term social/emotional development of our most vulnerable children and their families. When we get this right for our youngest learners, we create a pathway for them to develop the key skills they need to reach their full potential in school and in life.

So, why should society be as excited about this study as we are in the early childhood education field? We now have evidence-based research demonstrating that despite the pressures of poverty, high-quality early childhood education sets children and their families on a track to break the cycle of poverty for generations to come.

Diana Rauner is president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to providing all children – especially those from low-income families – with high-quality early childhood experiences from birth to age 5.