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What We Can Learn from the Perry Preschool Project

Recently, I wrote about James Heckman who evaluated the GED Program results after five decades and recorded his findings. Heckman is an economist and a 2000 Nobel Peace Prize Winner from the University of Chicago. He noticed that even young adults who earned their GED (General Education Development) were quitting or underperforming later in life, in careers, health, marriage and family, crime, etc. The “quitter” button remained inside of them. In other words, those who dropped out of high school also tended to drop out of other commitments in their lives as well.

He confirmed that the problem wasn’t always intelligence. In fact, in many cases, the GED students were as smart as those who earned the traditional high school diploma. Something else was going on.


What Researchers Discovered

James Heckman was directed to the “Perry Preschool Project” which took place between 1962-67. The project tracked two groups of pre-school aged children—a control group and an intervention group. Under David Weikart’s leadership, the goal of the Perry Preschool Project was to raise the I.Q.s of disadvantaged children so they could break the cycle of poverty and succeed in their career, health and family. Within a few years, the researchers discovered that their work was not raising the kids’ I.Q.s and they stopped the project.

What they later discovered, however, made all the difference in the world.

Creator David Weikart and his team later reported the study had, indeed, made a difference in those kids as adults. Just not in the way they predicted. When the study became a longitudinal study, they found out how much they’d influenced the kids. The children in the Perry Preschool Project (intervention group) later turned out to be highly successful in life. Better jobs. Longer careers. Stronger health. Better marriages and families. In short, the very elements you’d want as a result of school.

Just not a higher IQ.

The Project teachers created experiences and conversations designed to raise IQ in disadvantaged kids, and soon discovered that IQ doesn’t change much even in older children. Between the ages of 10-12, a person’s IQ is generally set. But personality traits continue to grow and can improve. In short, while IQ didn’t change much in the children, their EQ did–their Emotional Quotient. Students developed their emotional intelligence—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. The types of traits that make all the difference as adults.

Emotional Support and Life Skills for Students

So, James Heckman decided to locate those Perry Preschool teachers and find out what they had done to foster such success in the children later in life. “What sort of things did you do with and for those children?” he inquired.

Their response was simple but profound. They replied:

“We did for these children what we would do for our own.”

They embraced their fundamental role as caring adults. They acted like parents. And they offered Social and Emotional Learning to those young children:

  • Warmth.
  • Encouragement.
  • Love.
  • Support.
  • Belief.
  • Discipline.
  • Expectation.

Just as our school systems had begun to become factories to crank out academically sound graduates in America, this school reinstated the relational elements that make learning and maturation genuinely happen.

As we host focus groups, the response we continue to hear from middle school and high school students is how much they desire authentic relationships with their instructors. Warmth. Support. Love. Encouragement. What’s more, I have read more than one report suggesting that schools who provide SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) see test scores rise in their students. CASEL (Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning) indicates studies have demonstrated SEL improves both academics and classroom behavior.

Perhaps we’d see higher scores if we focused as much on this.


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What We Can Learn from the Perry Preschool Project