Quality early education can help slow learners catch up

Early intervention is key in preventing placement in special education
elkimmelito, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
elkimmelito, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Living in Newfoundland, in Canada’s far east, researcher and teacher David Philpott worked for more than three decades as a special educator in schools. Just a few years ago, he began to work with foundations which were focusing on quality early education.

As he dug into the research, Philpott suddenly realised that quality early childhood education could have a significant impact on the world of special education. “K to 12 educational systems are overwhelmed with trying to respond to the needs of children with exceptionalities,” he said.

With several co-authors, Philpott conducted a comprehensive international review of relevant evidence. Their finding? Quality early childhood education reduces special educational needs in young children, helping slow developers catch up with their peers.

The evidence

Released in a special edition of the Exceptionality Education International journal, Philpott and his collaborators have not unearthed anything new, but have comprehensively reviewed the evidence for the first time.

The research suggests that around 60% of special educational needs students manifested delays in three areas which quality early education addresses directly: “The biggest impacts of early childhood education are a boost to speech and language, academic achievement, and behavioural regulation,” Philpott explained.

“These kids are being diagnosed in the early years, but we’re not doing a good job in delivering early services to them,” he said. In Canada, for example, many licensed childcare centres deny entry to children with exceptionalities.

“Quality early childhood education reduces special educational needs in young children, helping slow developers catch up with their peers.”

“When [special needs children] hit the school system, if they’ve not had sufficient early intervention in those three areas, they’re going to consume an awful lot of resources,” Philpott said. Even with these extra resources, educators may have missed the crucial window of opportunity to boost development before school.

Much of the most useful evidence in the review comes from longitudinal studies. One such study in the UK, which followed children up to the age of 16 or 18, found that quality early education lowered special education placement by 40-60% for children with cognitive risk, and by 10-30% for children with socio-emotional risk.

Separate systems

The findings underline the need for better cooperation between two siloed sectors, in Canada and around the world, said Philpott.

For example, if a child has speech and language issues from birth, they are likely to first receive help from the health system. Then once they reach formal preschool or school, usually at four or five, the education system takes over – but often with a gap in delivery and limited cooperation or information sharing.

This was highlighted in an OECD report in 2017, which said not enough was being done to plan for successful transitions between early childhood education and primary school, and which recommended a proper examination of structural barriers.

Philpott has been speaking with educators and policymakers around Canada, and his next step is to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. This would test the assumption that expenditure on quality early education could be covered by reduced special education costs in the long term.

No matter what the financial benefits may be, a breakthrough will only be possible if the early childhood sector can fix its human resources crisis, said Philpott. Countries around the world are already struggling to hire quality early childhood educators. “Expecting expertise training, in a profession that’s low paid anyway, is very difficult,” he said.

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