The Abecedarian Approach
Can it really change the world?
Early childhood education and care (ECEC) has been the focus of increased attention from governments around the world over the last decades. School readiness is an important objective, but there's more riding on it than the benefits to individual children.

The UN describes children as "agents of change" when it comes to creating a better world. And, according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "early childhood development can help drive the transformation we hope to achieve over the next 15 years."

That's a lot of expectation to put on early childhood education, but the evidence that its effects are both far-reaching and long-lasting is there, with demonstrated educational, economic, and health benefits.

Much of this evidence is owed to the Abecedarian study. But despite its impact, it's not a name that's as familiar as other early educational models such as Montessori or Steiner. However, it continues to influence the way we think about early education and may yet be the key to delivering on those great expectations.

The evidence suggests that yes, it can.

"Everything goes back to early education," then-35-year-old Meishay Gattis told National Geographic. He's now the Executive Director of the YMCA, Greater New York area. But in 1972 he was just a few weeks old, picked – along with 110 other newborns in North Carolina, USA – to be part of the Abecedarian study run by Dr Craig Ramey and Dr Joseph Sparling. Like all the other children, he came from a disadvantaged background, and was considered to be at risk of being behind more advantaged children by the time he started kindergarten.

The study ran for five years and ended when the children started school. "The whole point was to help kids be ready for school, just to increase school readiness," researcher Liz Pungello, who has studied the Abecedarian kids, told NPR. Doctors Ramey and Sparling had great hopes that they could improve the lives of children by intervening early – a concept that was relatively new at that time.

"Once you're behind in school and once you're being labelled as someone who is slow or someone who can't quite do it, people begin to treat you differently, they lower their expectations for you," said Dr Ramey. "And as that occurs, you see kids begin to have the light go out of their eyes."

But they ended up getting much more from the program than anyone bargained for. Not only did the children show significant benefits from the age of 15 months, but they continued to do so well into their adult years.

They maintained their higher IQ scores, but they also did better than their peers on a variety of measures. For example, more of them went to college, there were fewer teen pregnancies, and they enjoyed better health than the study control group.

Labour economist James Heckman told NPR that the outcome of the early interventions tested in the Abecedarian study (and similar experiments, like the Perry preschool study, undertaken in Michigan around the same time) was to lower the cost to society.

"The cost of educating kids who are unruly and undisciplined in schools, that goes down," Dr Heckman explained. "The benefits that the kid contributes to earnings and society, that goes up. And so on down the line."

So far, so good, both for the individuals involved, and society at large. But can these results be replicated in the current age, in Australia? Can lessons from 1970s North Carolina be learned and applied to the here and now? And what would that look like? Fortunately, the work to make that happen has been, and continues to be done. And the evidence shows that it's working.

How does it work in practice?

It's all about the interaction.

In the decades since the 1970s study, a program has been developed that allows the Abecedarian approach to be embedded into existing routines and play-based learning. Dr Sparling describes it as "basically an adult-child interaction program".

With the Abecedarian approach, both the quality and quantity of interactions matter. The focus is on "high-quality interactions between adult and child that are frequent, intentional, and individualized."

"Imagine you're buttoning your child's coat," Dr Sparling told the Sydney Morning Herald "You're counting the buttons, you're naming the colours, and you're asking questions and talking about how we feel, what we do, and in what order. Every day."

You don't have to change your routines.

"It's really important to note that it's not a curriculum," the University of Melbourne's Dr Page told, "It's a set of adult-child interactions that can be embedded into your educational program to support you to achieve your goals and objectives for young children."

Associate Professor Jane Page is a senior researcher at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, which provides resources and training in 3a (Abecedarian Approach in Australia) for early childhood educators and parents.

In practice, there are four elements that "support you to think about how you can reach your objectives through specific types of interaction," Dr Page explained.

These are:
  • Language priority – every experience is an opportunity to enhance language skills
  • Learning Games – 200 games/activities for adults to play with children
  • Conversational reading – reading out loud and encouraging discussion
  • Enriched care-giving – using routine care-giving events as an opportunity to strengthen emotional connection and add educational value
"The 3a strategies support educators to engage in intentional teaching to build young children's language and knowledge and higher order thinking skills," Dr Page explained.

Take, for example, "enriched care-giving". These interactions can be any part of the existing daily routine, like lunchtime or nappy changes, suggested Dr Page. "How might we together work with children during nappy change or mealtime to bring rich language interactions into those routines?"

Or learning games – with 200 to choose from, educators can find specific ones that align with their objectives, slotted into the routines that already exist.

"Some people worry that it's a very structured approach," said Dr Page. "As opposed to rote learning, these interactions are to be embedded in the play-based learning opportunities planned for in educational programs.

"So the child and the adult are active in that process – the educator is constantly asking what is the child ready to learn and how best can I engage the child in that learning?"

"You don't need to change the routines," Dr Page stressed. "You would build this into your existing structure."

Can it benefit all children?

As the Australian Institute for Family Studies notes, the target group for Abecedarian programs is "especially … young children at risk".

And the implementation of the program by the Northern Territory in 2010 is a clear example of the benefits, and of how the approach can be tailored to specific communities (in this case, Indigenous children and their families).

An analysis of the 2012 results showed a drop of 5.7 per cent in the number of participants assessed as developmentally vulnerable, as well as significant improvements in social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, communication skills, and general knowledge.

But can the approach be applied more generally, in a setting with children from mixed socio-economic backgrounds?

According to the University of Melbourne, the answer is yes, the program impacts positively on all children. Their research shows the Abecedarian approach has been successful in centre-based care, home based programs, family day and long day-care settings.

"You're building vocabulary, you're checking children's comprehension, you're also building expressive language in quite a targeted way," Dr Page told

Will the Abecedarian approach work in your setting?

As with any successful educational undertaking, it's important for educators to be on the same page, and for managers to dedicate proper time to educating staff.

"You're building a professional learning community and you're building a common language and vocabulary about learning," Dr Page told

Different services are set up in different ways, so how that happens depends on the setting. Training supports educators in embedding strategies into their programs and practices over time. "The original studies attest to the fact that the greatest impact occurs when children are engaged in these strategies in educational settings, as well as the home learning environment," said Dr Page.

As early childhood educators, the question of how to provide quality care is always front of mind. Supporting skill and dedication through the use of proven, effective tools can only maximise the positive impact on those children for the time they are in your charge. What the long-lasting effects of that are is best summarised in the words of one of the original study participants, Meishay Gattis: "Hadn't I had that, who knows where I would be?"
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