Early Childhood Education

Abecedarian Program


The Abecedarian Program, also known as the Carolina Abecedarian Project, was established in 1972 at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Abecedarian Program was an experimental early childhood program aimed at studying the long-term effects of high-quality early intervention with infants judged to be at high risk as a result of poverty and maternal education. Follow-up studies after twenty-one years indicated that the Abecedarian program intervention had positive long-term results.

The Abecedarian Program began in 1972 and served children of low-income, predominantly African American families. A total of 111 infants, divided into two groups, participated in the study. Fifty-seven infants were assigned to the treatment group and 54 were in the control group. The average age of the infants at the beginning of the program was 4.4 months and all were in good health. Infants in the treatment group received child care and early educational services for six to eight hours per day, five days per week, for fifty weeks per year, up to kindergarten entry at age 5. In addition, families received medical, social, and nutritional services. Children and families in the control group received the additional services, but not the focused early childhood education program.

The early childhood education program consisted of planned activities in specific targeted developmental areas, namely, language, cognitive and fine motor, social and self-help, and gross motor. The child to caregiver ratio was 3:1 for infants and 6:1 for toddlers and preschoolers, and each caregiver was trained to place particular emphasis on language development through daily conversational interactions with the children. The program offered individualized activities for infants and a learning center approach for the toddlers and preschoolers. Parents of children in the program attended social functions, served on the advisory board, and received counseling in child health and development.

During the summer prior to kindergarten entrance, the Abecedarian treatment group children participated in a six-week transition program that included other community children. The intent of this program was to introduce the Abecedarian children to others they would encounter in school.

Upon school entry, half the children in both the treatment and control groups were randomly assigned to a school-age intervention program for kindergarten through third grade. A Home-School Resource Teacher (HST) was assigned to a group of fourteen children and served as a liaison between the children’s teachers and their families. The HST consulted with the school teachers and provided families with activities to support children’s learning of mathematics and reading. The HST also referred families to social services as needed. The purpose of this follow-up intervention was to assess the relative impact of timing of intervention on outcomes.

All but seven participants in both the treatment and control groups of the Abecedarian program were assessed at ages three, four, five, six and a half, eight, twelve, fifteen, and twenty-one years. Beginning at age 3 and throughout the study, treatment group children had significantly higher scores on I.Q. tests, as well as reading and math tests. By age 15, significantly fewer treatment group children had been retained in grade or had been placed in special education classes. By age 21, significantly more treatment group children were enrolled in or had graduated from a four-year college, and on average were a year older than control group participants at the birth of their first child.

Because of the school intervention feature of the Abecedarian Program, outcomes can be compared in terms of timing and duration of intervention. Some children received early and continuing intervention, others received early intervention only, and still others received later intervention only. In terms of IQ, reading, and math measures, the most persistent positive results were obtained by children in the early and continuing intervention group up to age 12. The next best outcome accrued to children in the early intervention group, followed by the later intervention group. By age 15, however, continuing benefits were discernible only for participants in the two groups that had experienced early intervention. See also Cognitive Development; Development, Language; Development, Social; Intelligence Quotient; Intelligence Testing.

Further Readings: Burchinal, Margaret R., Frances A. Campbell, Donna M. Bryant, Barbara H. Wasik, and Craig T. Ramey. (1997). Early intervention and mediating processes in cognitive performance children of low-income African American families. Child Development 68(5), 935-954; Campbell, Frances A., Elizabeth P. Pungello, Shari Miller-Johnson, Margaret Burchinal, and Craig T. Ramey. (2001). The development of cognitive and academic abilities: Growth curves from an early childhood educational experiment. Developmental Psychology 37(2), 231-242; Campbell, Frances A., and Craig T. Ramey. (1995). Cognitive and school outcomes for high risk African American students at middle adolescence: Positive effects of early intervention. American Educational Research Journal 32(4), 743-772.