Outcomes of early childhood education: Literature review

Publication Details

This literature review was commissioned by the Ministry of Education to provide policy makers with a synthesis of research that analyses the impact of early childhood education (ECE) for children and families.

Author(s): Linda Mitchell, Cathy Wylie and Margaret Carr, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: May 2008

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Chapter 4: Child health

Except for the increasing research on cortisol levels, and another study that included hearing tests, most studies of the impact of ECE on children's health rely on parent reports, sometimes at a general level. We found 11 studies of the relationship of ECE participation and children's health outcomes. These are all short-term outcomes, related to current ECE experience.

Positive outcomes were reported in five intervention studies, including the two that asked about dental cavities and care. Neutral outcomes were reported in six studies. Four of these were interventions, and one the Baker et al. (2005) study of ECE expansion in Quebec. Two of the studies that asked about injury rates found no differences; the other outcomes were home cortisol levels (comparing those who attended ECE and those who did not), and parent reports of general health, and asthma.

Negative outcomes were reported for four studies. These include higher cortisol levels for children less than 36 months (medium effect size, r=0.25) in a meta-analysis of seven studies (Vermeer & van IJzendoorn 2006), higher levels of ear infections in two studies (one an intervention in England, one the Baker et al. study, with a small effect size of d=0.05), higher nose/throat infection levels (a small effect size of d=0.013), and fewer in excellent health (a small effect size of d=–0.05) (the Baker et al. study).

Overall, the picture from research to date of health outcomes for children from ECE experience is not solid. There is a suggestion that children may catch more infections (which makes sense); and that programmes that include health support may improve health outcomes. But there is no longitudinal research on whether the impacts from ECE experience are enduring.

Research on cortisol levels is interesting: on the one hand, there is some indication that young children attending all-day care may experience higher levels; other studies indicate that this pattern is less evident in high-quality centres, or that ECE experiences can decrease cortisol levels for children where there is some parental stress or extremes of emotional expression. There are no longitudinal studies of the effects of higher cortisol levels, and Vermeer and van IJzendoorn's review suggests that the relevant studies indicate that there are no longitudinal effects.

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