Young children with access to high quality early learning are better prepared for kindergarten and for success in life: They are more likely to read earlier, graduate from high school, and go to college. They also have better-developed life skills like motivation, self-discipline, focus, and confidence.

But the cost of quality child care and preschool can be too high for many hardworking parents to afford, and there aren’t enough options to meet the need, especially for lower-income families. We believe that investing in more and better early learning opportunities will have a lasting impact that helps address racial and economic inequities and sets the next generation on the path to achieving their full potential.

The promising news is that more and more people are recognizing the value of early childhood education. As Brookings notes in a recent report, 42 states and the District of Columbia are already improving their early education programs. These programs now serve nearly 30 percent of the nation’s 4-year-olds. But are they effective in preparing children for kindergarten? Are they closing achievement and opportunity gaps? What does it mean to be a ‘quality’ public pre-K program?

Together with more than 30 researchers, program leaders, advocates, and four co-funding philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sought to answer those questions. We looked at peer-reviewed research and case studies of effective programs to find consensus on the most effective pre-K practices and policies.

These “Indispensables for Quality Pre-K,” combined with Brookings’ research on the positive effects of pre-K, give us a shared understanding of the elements of high-quality pre-K and its lasting impact.

Early Childhood Teaching Practices

Teaching 3- and 4-year old children requires a special set of skills. Early childhood educators focus on social and emotional development, and on building a real connection with families to encourage learning both inside and outside the classroom. Here are some evidence-based teaching practices:

  • Recognizing the strengths and diversity of children and their families is paramount, and built on regular, positive, supportive interactions between parents and educators.
  • Allowing children to first master the basics and then progressively build on foundational skills. By providing sequenced activities that align with a child’s developmental progress, educators can identify which skills a child has mastered and which still need work, to better support children as they learn.
  • Promoting positive behavior helps develop better cognition and empathy in children. For quality pre-K, educators should emphasize social and emotional skills that promote a child’s social development and self-regulation.
Early Learning Policies

For these practices to flourish in pre-K classrooms, effective policies must be adopted at the state, local, and federal levels. Here’s how good policy can lead to good practice:

  • Current funding for early education programs is insufficient, leading to high costs for families, low wages for educators, and inadequate resources for children. As more states realize the importance of funding pre-K programs, predictable and sustainable funding will ensure that quality practices benefit all children, not just the fortunate few.
  • Research shows that a bachelor’s degree benefits both early educators and their students, but the expense of continuing education combined with low wages means many pre-K educators opt out. Providing resources for early education professionals to grow, earn degrees, and engage in regular training fosters a better pre-K experience for everyone.
  • Data that includes pre-K through elementary school can reveal areas for improvement, helping children make the transition from one step to the next, and ensuring that social, emotional, and academic gains are sustained over time.
How You Can Help

There are many ways to get involved that can have deep impacts across the early learning system. Here are some examples:

  • Find your local advocacy leaders. In the Gates Foundation’s home state of Washington, we work with the Children’s Alliance – and your state likely has a similar nonprofit working on access, quality, and supports for workforce.
  • Stay informed. National organizations like Mom’s Rising and the First Five Years Fund prioritize early learning policies and help build broad public awareness and support.
  • Give directly. Search for a preschool classroom in your neighborhood that could use some extra support.

Parents, grandparents, and caregivers everywhere thank you!