Early Childhood Intervention: James Heckman
Articles,  Blog

Early Childhood Intervention: James Heckman

[MUSIC PLAYING] Some people are very
good at certain things, not so good at others. But those things that cause
people to be good at one thing — and not so good —
those can be shaped. But what we’ve
come to understand is we have this large array
of skills, a vector of skills, and those skills map in
to different strengths that people have, and
different tasks in life. Now there’s a biological
proclivity there. There is a genetic
predisposition, but there’s also a tremendous
possibility of flexibility. Virtually all of the early
programs, like Perry program, and like many of
the other programs, were designed to combat
mental deficiency and the mental
defectiveness or low IQ among certain
disadvantaged populations. They had an intuition that
somehow the early years were important. They had the intuition
that you could boost IQ, you could prevent
mental retardation, if you gave young children, in
this case kids three to four, some stimulation, and you
followed them for two years, in the sense of giving
them stimulation, just a few hours
a day, five days a week during the school year. Perry was a study that was done
in Michigan in the early 1960s. And it was motivated actually
by individuals working in a public school system. If you look at the
original documents, they all thought they
were boosting IQ. And then one of
the most surprising findings that came out of
Perry and subsequent work was that most of the boost
came in other aspects. Social and emotional
skills, personality, aspects of being able to engage
others, to restrain oneself, self-control, those are
all things that people just simply weren’t looking at. What was interesting about
Perry is that these people put their money where
their mouth was, they followed these children
for close to 40 years after the initial study. But they were able
to essentially see that the treatment group
and the control group were very different at age 40. And they were
different at age 27, and we’re actually
collecting data now on these people at age 50. And so what we find is that the
major mechanism, the major way that we boosted the
lives of these children, is through their social
and emotional skills. That’s a major finding, and
people didn’t know that. Well, the Abecedarian
program was a program that was
developed in North Carolina. The initial program
was much more intensive than the Perry program. Working with small
groups, working with kids, individualizing, what the child
development psychologist would call scaffolding, and giving
them a range of activities, and kind of challenging them and
taking them to the next step. And we look at actually the
outcomes of those children when they are 35 years of age. And surprise and
surprise, it turned out that those children
in the treatment group had much better measures
of health, adult health, and that wasn’t expected. And it wasn’t even part of
the original architecture. And it came. Now we understand
much better why that happened. But what we did
is we changed not only their cognitive
skills, they’re a little bit smarter in terms
of IQ, a little bit smarter in terms of their
achievement tests, but they are also a lot
smarter in some sense about social emotional skills. They follow doctors’
instructions. They stay on course. They stay with regimen. They’re more cautious
about how they live and the risks they take. And the real question is how
this can be then transformed into what their full
lifetime wealth, what their full lifetime
outcome will be, in terms of their health,
their mental health, and in terms of
their achievement, in the workplace and
education and the like. The gaps that children had
when they left high school were more or less there when
they entered their first year of kindergarten. And gaps were there between
social and economic groups, race groups, and so forth. We know that we can do
something about those gaps by giving children
richer environments. What it really is doing is
showing these early childhood programs is giving a lot
of disadvantaged kids the kind of advantages
the middle class and upper middle class families
give to their children already. Reading to the kid, stimulating
the kid, encouraging the kid. If you’re a sharp cookie, if
you have a high IQ, what’s called fluid intelligence,
the ability to solve problems, at age 10, that’s
going to generally stay with you throughout life. But if you look, for example,
at the structure of personality skills, personalities evolve. So little kids, they’re actually
quite innocent beings, most of them, then they gradually
develop these skills, and they become more and
more rich in the sense that we think of the
adult personality is much richer than the
child’s personality. So when Lyndon Johnson
launched the war on poverty, there was not very
good understanding of exactly what the
nature of poverty was and how we could actually
address inequality in society. I think the idea there was
that basically wherever we invest in the life cycle, it
was a pretty good thing to do. You could retrain a
50-year-old steel worker. You can also put
money into Head Start. You could put money
almost anywhere and it was economically
productive, especially if you were dealing
with disadvantaged, low-skilled people. So what Lyndon Johnson
was talking about in 1964 is relevant. Those skills matter. But now we understand
much more that there are a bunch of those skills and
that when we make early skill investment, it not only pays
off in producing skills that are very valuable later
in life, but it also is very valuable in helping
you produce skills that help you produce further skills. So it helps the kid avoid
being put in special education, being held behind,
being put at risk in a variety of
other activities. Those kinds of activity, that
kind of advantage, I think, is enormous. And that’s part of understanding
inequality, and also part of an effective
policy for understanding how you might combat poverty and
inequality at different stages in the life cycle.

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