The economic returns on early investments are high, Professor James Heckman, Nobel Laureate economist from the University of Chicago, told a group of Missouri business leaders at a high level summit in St. Louis last week.
But it’s not just cognitive abilities we should be focusing on, he said. While intelligence is an important determinant of socioeconomic success, it’s social-emotional “soft skills” like perseverance, attention, motivation and self confidence that really move children toward life success.
Sure, remedial programs for teens and young adults can be effective, but they’re much more costly in producing the same results (e.g., skill development). He laid out a strong case for public support for early intervention…specifically, early childhood interventions for disadvantaged children.
What constitutes ‘disadvantaged’? According to Heckman, it’s the quality of parenting. John Medina, who spoke to an audience of 1,300 at the Parents as Teachers conference the week before, agrees. “Stressed brains don’t learn the same way as non-stressed brains,” he says. Children who grow up in households under constant stress—whether from bickering parents, economic constraints, alcoholism/drug addiction—do not learn as well as others.
Organizations like Parents as Teachers that provide home visits can affect the lives of parents, creating permanent change in the home environment. And that’s a powerful return an anyone’s investment.