When researchers study inequalities in society and opportunities for social mobility, they often try to determine the sources of these inequalities. Not surprisingly, many look to inequalities in the education system and their lasting effect in adulthood, but new studies show that these gaps find their beginnings earlier in life.
The first years of life are critical in terms of brain development; as the academic literature shows, the brain reaches 85% of its final size by age 3, and 95% of its size by age 5. During this period, all the developmental processes are at their peak: cognitive, linguistic, emotional, social, perceptual, and more. It is a critical period, one in which exposure to a supportive, enriching, and stimulating environment is essential for optimal development.
A recent Taub Center study, published with the generous support of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, delves deeper into the influence of environmental factors on early childhood development and children’s future scholastic achievements. The study asks if there is a difference in Israel between infants and toddlers – conception to age 2 – and preschoolers – ages 3-5 – in the effect that poverty has on later academic achievements.
In general, the researchers discovered that certain family characteristics have an impact on students’ achievements across both age groups (birth to age 2 and 3-5). For example, as parents’ level of education rises so do their children’s scholastic achievements. In addition, number of siblings has a negative effect during early childhood – as the number of siblings rises, scholastic achievements drop.
When it comes to poverty, however, there are differences between the two age groups. Poverty during the first two years of a child’s life is strongly and negatively correlated with later academic achievements, while poverty that is experienced by the child at ages 3-5 does not have the same correlation. These findings hold true for all the subjects tested on the 5th grade Meitzav exams – mathematics, Hebrew, English (as a second language), and literacy in science and technology.
Furthermore, there are significant differences in Bagrut outcomes between students who experience poverty from birth to 2-years-old and those who experience poverty between ages 3 and 5; again, the negative correlation is greater for those who experience poverty during the very first years of life.
These findings are particularly poignant because child poverty in Israel, which stands at about 26%, is nearly the highest among the developed countries (with the exception of Turkey). It seems that such poverty, experienced from birth to two years, is likely to result in a kind of “scar” that remains over time and accompanies the child through adulthood.
To address poverty in early childhood the researchers suggest the possibility of shifting a portion of child allowances towards early childhood, and in this way, offering assistance to young parents.
In view of the high employment rates among mothers with small children, it is also important to increase the quality of educational frameworks for very young children, especially for children up to age two and especially for families who are in financial distress. Because of the critical importance of early childhood development and its many implications, the Taub Center plans to continue researching this topic in the coming years.
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