Skip Navigation

Study Finds Quality Child Care Supports Long-Term STEM Outcomes

Resource March 28, 2024

It’s no secret that a child’s early years influence the rest of their lives. Research has shown time and time again the long-term benefits that high-quality early care and education (ECE) can have on children’s development. However, limited research has been done on the relationship between ECE and long-term success in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). 

A recent study by the American Psychological Association conducted by researchers at The University of California, Irvine, found that quality ECE is associated with STEM achievement through high school. The longitudinal study included 979 families, spanning from the birth of the children in 1991 to 2006. The observers visited the child care programs and preschools of children when they were 6, 15, 24, 36, and 54 months old and analyzed two aspects of the child care associated with quality: high caregiver sensitivity and high caregiver cognitive stimulation. Caregiver sensitivity was measured by the level of warmth and support provided by caregivers, including their responsiveness to children’s interests and emotions. Examples of cognitively stimulating activities include using rich language, asking thought-provoking questions, and giving feedback to enhance the children’s understanding of concepts. 

The conclusion? Children who received high-quality ECE performed better in STEM in elementary and high school.

The researchers found: 

  • Higher quality ECE yielded greater STEM achievement in late elementary school (3rd, 4th, and 5th grade), which then contributed to greater STEM achievement in high school (at age 15). STEM success was determined by examining standardized test scores in 3rd to 5th grades and in high school, as well as the most advanced science and math courses high school students completed, and their GPA in science and math courses.
    • The link was particularly strong for children from low-income families. 
  • Caregivers’ sensitivity and responsiveness are just as important as cognitive stimulation in predicting later STEM outcomes.
    • This demonstrates the importance of children’s social-emotional development and settings that support cognitive and social-emotional skills in their long-term success. 

Overall, the research finds that high-quality ECE practices, which include an environment in which caregivers engage in warm and responsive interactions with children and provide cognitive stimulation, support a strong foundation for science learning. This is especially true for children from low-income families who are underrepresented in STEM careers. The results suggest that efforts to diversify and strengthen the STEM pipeline can begin with supporting access to high-quality caregiving. 

Stay Updated

Receive monthly updates on the latest news, policy, and actions to advance federal investment in children and their families.