The Frank Porter Graham Institute at the University of North Carolina is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and if you’re not familiar with FPG’s Abecedarian Project, we encourage you to learn more about this groundbreaking study in the links below. Through ongoing studies, it continues to yield longitudinal data on the beneficial effects of high-quality early care and education in the lives of children nearly 40 years after receiving it.
The Abecedarian Project studied 111 children born in North Carolina between 1972 and 1977. The original study was a randomized trial to examine the extent to which intensive early childhood education could overcome the odds of developmental delays and academic failure for children born into low-income families. The children who participated in the study are now in their late 30s and early 40s, and ongoing research with them is providing remarkable data on the long-term effects of high-quality early education.
During the study, the children received health care on-site from staff pediatricians, and stable, predictable early childhood educational experiences comprised of four key elements: language priority, conversational reading, enriched caregiving and a game-based curriculum.
Age-Appropriate Activities Emphasized Language
Researchers designed the activities to support age-appropriate development across the infant, toddler and preschool years, and they shaped the activities as playful back-and-forth exchanges between adult and child. Sometimes the games integrated traditional activities, such as peekaboo. Each child had an individualized prescription of games, and as children aged, their activities became more conceptual and skill-based. Although the games focused on social, emotional, cognitive and physical development, they gave particular emphasis to language.
“We told the teachers that every game is a language game,” said Joseph Sparling, who helped plan and administer the Abecedarian program. “Even if the activity focused mostly on motor skills, the teachers still needed to talk to the children and to elicit age-appropriate language from them.”
Researchers have followed the participating children into adulthood, assessing them at ages 5, 8, 12, 15, 21, 30 and 35—and currently are doing so at age 40. Through age 15, I.Q. scores for the Abecedarian children were higher than those of the randomly assigned control group. They also scored higher on achievement tests in math and reading during their elementary and secondary school years, and they had lower levels of grade retention and fewer placements in special education classes.
At age 21, the Abecedarian group had maintained statistically significant advantages both in intellectual test performance and in scores on academic tests of reading and mathematics. They were more likely to attend college, more likely to be in school or to have a skilled job, or both. They also were less likely to be teen parents, less likely to smoke marijuana and less likely to report depressive symptoms when compared to the control group.
At age 30, the participating group was more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree, have a job and delay parenthood, among other positive differences from their peers. At age 35, they even were more likely to be in better health, a benefit the original researchers did not anticipate.
The long-term results of the Abecedarian Project show a clear economic benefit when children at risk receive enriched early care and education. For every dollar spent on the program, taxpayers saved much more as a result of participants’ higher incomes, reduced need for educational and government services and lower health care costs.
TED Talk on the Abecedarian Project by Dr. Kathleen Gallagher, who now is the endowed chair in early childhood at the University of Nebraska Kearney
Photo: Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute