High quality early learning has been consistently linked to positive outcomes for youth and adults. Up to 90 percent of brain development happens in the first five years of life, setting the foundation for later learning and success in college, career and life.  

Return on Investment

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), early brain development is strongly affected by the child’s surroundings and experiences. Children who have positive, educational early childhood experiences are more likely to experience school success, have higher graduation rates, demonstrate higher proficiency in math and language skills, have better cognitive and social skills, and are more skilled at self-regulation. These children are also less likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system, have decreased needs for special education services, and have lower adolescent pregnancy rates.

The positive and negative effects of early learning are magnified for children from low-income homes, with special needs or experiencing other disadvantages. Poor quality early care and education increases the risk of negative outcomes for all children, especially the most vulnerable children who are less likely to have access to high quality programs. The AAP states, to focus only on the education of children beginning in kindergarten is to ignore the science of early development and deny the importance of early experiences.

To focus only on the education of children beginning in kindergarten is to ignore the science of early development and deny the importance of early experiences.

What Does Quality Early Learning Look Like?


High quality early learning programs include the following components:

  •  A developmentally appropriate curriculum
  • An enriching, engaging, and safe environment
  • Teachers with specified credentials
  • Small group size and low adult to child ratios
  • Parent-teacher communication and family engagement
  • A cohesive school community with connections to the larger community

In practice, this means that classrooms should be well-stocked with engaging and developmentally appropriate materials that children can easily access.The children are able to move around the classroom to participate in hands-on, experiential learning activities. Learning happens best when children are engaging in play activities that have been thoughtfully prepared by teachers.

Learning happens best when children are engaging in play activities that have been thoughtfully prepared by teachers.

Children have opportunities throughout their day to select the materials they would like to use and are able to return to activities over time. Direct teacher instruction supports and supplements learning, while play-based learning remains the focal point of the early childhood classroom. Interest in learning activities is sustained through teacher interactions with children, in the context of a structured, yet flexible, classroom schedule.

Adults in the classroom should deepen children’s learning through their play experiences by engaging in meaningful interactions with children. Teachers ask open-ended questions, inquire into how children have come to think the way they do, encourage and respond to children’s verbal and non-verbal cues, and provide new vocabulary through singing with, reading to, and talking with children. Group activities such as circle time include a variety of activities to introduce new concepts, review prior learning and engage children’s interest through connections to the rest of the curriculum. 

A thoughtful, research-based curriculum that is connected with the school’s philosophy and purpose should be evident throughout the school. Curricular activities address all areas of children’s development and provide opportunities for scaffolding each child’s learning at his or her own pace. Academic content areas are reinforced through the intentionally planned experiential learning activities offered to children. The curriculum is extended in all areas of the learning environment, including the outdoor environment.

Teachers should have education specific to the learning, growth and development of young children, along with experience working with children ages birth through kindergarten. Teachers in high quality programs are provided with ongoing professional development opportunities on current best practices in the field of early learning, specific areas in which they would like additional training and support, and broader topics that the school has identified to continuously improve organizational effectiveness. 

Families are welcomed into the early learning environment and participate in regular two-way communication about how their children are doing. Opportunities for family members to be involved in their children’s school are available and tailored to the unique needs and interests of families. Family involvement in the early years sets a foundation for families to stay involved in their children’s education as they enter primary school and beyond.

Early learning schools should develop a strong sense of community within early childhood classrooms and throughout the school. Beyond the school, community connections can be developed to support robust resource networks for children, families and the school. Engaging the community as well as families helps children find their place in the larger world and connects families with one another.

Ensuring High Quality Early Learning through Accreditation

To obtain national accreditation, early learning schools must meet specific quality standards, such as low child-teacher ratios, increased teacher training, improved facilities and formalized management procedures. Accreditation standards come from the best practices and research in early learning and ensure a high quality program when fully implemented. 

Early learning programs with highly qualified staff are more likely to produce positive outcomes for children’s learning and development. Preschool teachers with at least a four-year degree and specialized training in early childhood are more effective and more actively engaged with the children they teach. The Institute of Medicine advocates for early childhood professionals to hold “the same high level of sophisticated knowledge and competencies related to child development, content knowledge and educational practices” as educators teaching in elementary grade levels. AdvancED concurs that teachers working in early learning programs should have educational backgrounds and credentials that are specific to young learners, as well as experience working with young children.

AdvancED accreditation involves everyone in the school. It requires staff and administrators to look at the school’s purpose and vision and how the daily actions of the school are fulfilling that purpose. In addition to organizational effectiveness, there is a strong focus on communication with families and the community, assessing instruction, making programmatic changes based on data, and engaging in continuous improvement. Because accreditation ensures high quality, families can be confident that their children are in the best care for learning, growth, and development. AdvancED is the leading accreditation organization for schools across the educational spectrum, which allows children attending an early learning school with AdvancED accreditation to be on a level playing field upon entry into elementary school. Aligned standards are employed in both their early learning school and the elementary school, supporting learners in developmentally appropriate ways as they move through their school career. 

As an advocate for young children, AdvancED is a proponent of teacher qualifications, engaging and intentional learning environments, and ways of knowing how children are learning, growing, and developing at each child’s unique pace. The AdvancED Standards for Quality Early Learning Schools are unique in that they focus specifically on the learning, growth and development of young children. These Standards examine not only the important compliance areas of health and safety but also the specific educational needs of our youngest learners. The Standards focus on providing developmentally appropriate and rigorous curriculum for all areas of a child’s development—supporting the whole child in an effective and responsive learning environment. Most importantly, the AdvancED Standards emphasize continuous improvement, and accreditation supports early learning schools in continually reaching for better outcomes. 

Children attending accredited early learning programs, such as those accredited by AdvancED, are poised for success in their primary and secondary school experiences, as well as in college and their future careers. Early experiences have a critical impact on the brain and all areas of learning, growth and development. It is imperative to invest in high quality early learning options for all children to set them on the course toward successful outcomes in school and in life.

For more information on the economic returns of investing in early learning, visit New research: early education as economic investment from the National Conference of State Legislatures. 


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