The academic literature shows that the first years of life are critical in terms of brain development: until age 3, the brain reaches 85% of its final size, and until age 5, 95% of its size. In this period, all the developmental processes are at their height: cognitive, linguistic, emotional, social, perceptual, and more.
For this reason, there are those who claim that the first 1,000 days of life – from conception until age 2 – are the most critical in terms of development, a period where exposure to a supportive, enriching, and stimulating environment is essential for optimal development.
This study, generously supported by the Bernard van Leer Foundation, examines the impact of family income during early childhood on Israeli students’ future academic achievements on the 5th grade Meitzav exams, and distinguishes for the first time between infants – birth to 2-years-old – and preschoolers – ages 3-5.
Economic and scholastic inequalities in Israel
Economic inequality in Israel is among the highest in the OECD countries, and especially high among children – almost 30% of Israel’s children lived in poverty in 2017. More than half of all poor families are families with children. Israel also ranks among the lowest in student academic achievements among the OECD countries, with high levels of inequality in those achievements among Israeli students.
Family characteristics and scholastic achievements
Certain family characteristics have an impact on students’ achievements across both age groups (birth to age 2 and 3-5). There is a strong positive relationship between parents’ level of education and achievements – that is, as parents’ level of education rises so do their children’s scholastic achievements. Likewise, number of siblings has a negative effect during early childhood – as the number of siblings rises, scholastic achievements drop.
Poverty in early childhood and Meitzav exam performance
Poverty during the first two years of a child’s life appears to have an especially strong and negative effect on later academic achievements, while poverty that is experienced by the child at ages 3-5 does not have the same impact. These findings hold up across all the scholastic tests of the 5th grade Meitzav exams: math, Hebrew, English, and science.
Poverty in early childhood and attaining a Bagrut certificate
Controlling for previous achievements, poverty experienced during the first two years of life lowers the chances of students receiving a Bagrut certificate. 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.
Given these findings, it is possible to suggest that poverty experienced from birth to two years is likely to create a kind of “scar” that remains over time and accompanies the child through adulthood.
The researchers suggest the possibility of shifting a portion of child allowances towards early childhood, and in this way, offering assistance to young parents. Likewise, in view of the high employment rates among mothers with small children, it is especially important to increase the number of quality, educational frameworks for very young children, especially up to age two.