John Funk, in his blog at Topics in Early Childhood Education, reminds us that for a child to learn in the preschool classroom, we must first address certain fundamentals: “security, association, belonging, dignity, hope, power, enjoyment and competence”.
We can call these fundamentals “soft skills”. The evidence suggests that it is the development of such soft skills in early childhood programs that is the key to their long-term effects on adult earnings and state economies. Research by Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman supports the importance of soft skills development to long-term effects of early childhood programs.
Advocates of early childhood programs should remember that some of the estimated long-term effects of these programs appear, to anyone new to these issues, to be somewhat implausible. For example, we provide the child with 3 hours per day of preschool, for one school year at age 4. And these 500 hours of the child’s time are supposed to dramatically affect skills and earnings in adulthood? Yet this is what evaluations find, for example for the Perry Preschool program or the Chicago Child-Parent Center program.
It is difficult to believe that knowing a few more letters or numbers upon entry to kindergarten, by itself, will dramatically affect adult outcomes. We would expect such achievement gains for hard skills, by themselves, to depreciate over time. Many studies of early childhood programs do find such depreciation of hard skills.
But well-run early childhood programs develop both hard skills and what we can call “soft skills”: how the child interacts with peers, with authority figures, and most of all, how the child views him or herself. A child entering kindergarten who is more self-confident, who believes that his or her plans can affect his or her surroundings, and who can get along with other students and teacher, will be more successful in kindergarten. This success in turn will encourage the child’s confidence and planning, and change how the child is viewed by peers, teachers, and even parents. All of this leads to further success in first grade and beyond.
In other words, soft skills, rather than decreasing over time, tend to grow over time. It is this soft skill growth that also allows hard skills to grow and develop. This long-term virtuous cycle of soft skill growth leading to further soft skill growth and hard skill growth is what allows relatively modest early childhood interventions to have long-term effects. It is the malleability of such soft skill development in early childhood that allows early childhood programs to have such powerful long-term effects.