New Findings from the Abecedarian Project: High-Quality Early Ed Brings Better Relationships with Parents and More Employment

Date Published: 04/07/2017

Note: FPG senior scientist emeritus Joseph Sparling co-created the original curriculum for the Abecedarian Project and has developed new training on the Abecedarian Approach, now avaliable through FPG's Professional Development Center.

New findings from the Abecedarian Project show that children who are given high-quality education at an early age, starting at six weeks old and continuing through their first five years of life, are more likely to be employed full-time and have better relationships with their parents as adults.

Craig Ramey, the original principal investigator on the project at UNC's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG), presented the results with colleagues at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. Ramey, a professor and distinguished research scholar of human development at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, led the team there that produced the new follow-up report.

“The most recent findings from the Abecedarian Project are about the quality of life, tied to what the children experienced in the first five years of life,” said Ramey.

The study follows 96 children who have continuously participated in the Abecedarian Project, an early education program for at-risk infants and children that started in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1971. The National Institutes of Health funded the original study through FPG.

“We have demonstrated that when we provide vulnerable children and families with really high quality services--educationally, medically, socially--we have impacts of a large and practical magnitude all the way up to middle age,” said Ramey, who also serves as a chief science officer of Roanoke, Virginia.

Both the control group and treatment group received health care, nutrition, and family support through social services; however, the treatment group also received five years of early care and education.

According to Ramey, high-quality education all day for five days a week, and for 50 weeks a year, beginning at six weeks of age and continuing until the child starts kindergarten, makes a lifetime of difference.

“And in our early education program, the most important thing is the quality of interaction between the teachers and the children,” Ramey said, pointing to the teachers’ abilities to tailor educational activities to a child’s specific needs, in a fun and natural way, as a critical element of the study’s results. “It’s pretty clear that’s what the magic ingredient is.”

The quality of natural teaching,via social interaction between the teacher and child, is highly important, especially in infancy, according to Ramey. This includes such things as the conversational aspect of language and the focus on interactive reading as enjoyable, rather than a chore.

“The data show that children who received the educational treatment are successful socially, especially in a familial setting, as indicated by their close relationships with their mothers and fathers in middle age,” said Libbie Sonnier-Netto, a doctoral student in human development at Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, who conducted the follow-up interviews for this study.

Sonnier-Netto also noted that individuals in the educational group are more likely to be employed full-time, with more assets, such as owning a car, a home, and having a savings account. According to Ramey, the connection between the results is obvious.

“What we’ve discovered is that if you treat people well, they thrive and they, in turn, give back,” Ramey said. “Part of our task is to make what we now know to be so important–high-quality, early childhood education and care–widely available to all who need it in this country.”

Sharon Ramey, a professor and distinguished research scholar at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, co-wrote the book on the Abecedarian approach with Craig Ramey and FPG senior scientist emeritus Joseph Sparling. Sparling co-created the original curriculum for the project.

Beyond the familial bond and employment status, Sharon Ramey says the researchers are seeing another trend among the treatment group participants. “We also discovered that individuals who received early high-quality care and education also have a keen sense of social equality--and make decisions that balance the equation between those who ‘have’ and those who ‘have much less.’”

The researchers expect to continue analyzing the dataset about the effects of early care and education on the children as they progress through middle age.

In addition, Sparling has developed new training on the Abecedarian Approach, which is available through FPG's Professional Development Center.

photo credit: UNC's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute

adapted from a press release from Virginia TechCarilion Research Institute