Ten Essential Elements of Early Childhood Program Effectiveness

Ten Essential Elements of Early Childhood Program Effectiveness

By: Arthur J. Reynolds

I have updated the key elements of effective early childhood programs to be consistent with the most recent knowledge on what works and what works better for young children and families. The original elements were articulated in collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Education in 2006.

Given the unprecedented health, economic, and social challenges facing the nation, high priority for action should go to solutions that demonstrate large, beneficial impacts. A key goal of President Biden’s policy agenda is universal preschool education for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Ensuring that scaled programs implement elements most likely to sustain gains will benefit children, families, and communities. 

The 10 elements are as follows:

1. Provide universal access for all children. The positive effects of early education on school readiness and performance have been found across all levels of socioeconomic status. 

2. Begin no later than age 4. Educational enrichment beginning early matters, but the evidence of benefits and long-term effects is strongest for programs serving 3- and 4-year-olds. 

3. Sufficient intensity of learning experiences. The instructional content and activities of programs should be of sufficient length and intensity to address learning needs adequately.

4. Multifaceted and engaging learning experiences across domains. A diverse set of instructional activities, curricula, and learning experiences help to promote active and engaged learning.

5. Highly trained professionals and on-going professional development. Children taught by BA-level teachers who are well-supported and compensated are more likely to experience high-quality programs. 

6. Accountability system marked by shared leadership, clear learning standards, and monitoring for improvement. A clear leadership vision is established that is shared and inclusive of all staff. 

7. Comprehensive family services.  Programs that provide a full range of child education and family services are more responsive to children's needs and will be more likely to impact child outcomes.

8. Small class sizes and low child-to-staff ratios.  Early childhood class sizes of less than 18 and child to staff ratios under 9 to 1 are associated with greater learning gains. 

9. Optimal duration and length. The number of years of preschool and the length of program services are positively associated with children's learning.

10. Coordination and alignment with K-3 to provide a continuous P-3 system of supports. The extent to which the preschool program is integrated with kindergarten and the elementary grades leads to smoother transitions to school and stronger gains. 


Two overarching principles should guide the implementation of the 10 essential elements.

A. A supportive and enriching organizational and social context for learning is foundational to optimal benefits and sustained gains. Elements of effectiveness in early childhood programs and broader learning systems achieve their most beneficial impacts within an organizational context that is well-supported by financial and human resources and promotes a collaborative and inclusive climate.

B. Gains are more likely to be initiated and sustained as the number of essential elements present in programs and classrooms increases. Studies in the Human Capital Research Collaborative have found that at least 60-70% of the key elements should be present to sustain gains.