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ELS@H: Cutting-Edge Research Is Informing the Early Education Field


  • ELS@H, begun in 2017, includes a large representative sample of Massachusetts families and their children.
  • In 2020, the study began to explore the influence of the pandemic on ELS@H families and early childhood educators.
  • The study has yielded important insights about young children’s development and their experiences in early learning settings.
The Challenge

Researchers and policymakers are trying to understand and build on the benefits of early learning programs. New research was needed to identify the short- and long-term effects of early learning experiences—from social, emotional, and cognitive, to how they link to adult success—so that we can make informed investments in today’s children. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the education of children across the globe, and new research was needed to better understand the impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing of children, families, and early care and education providers.

The Approach

In 2017, Abt and Harvard researchers began a population-based cohort study—the Early Learning Study at Harvard (ELS@H)—following a representative sample of 3,500 3- and 4-year-old children who were cared for in a variety of early learning settings, both informal and formal. ELS@H researchers continue to collect and  analyze data to answer many of the big questions and concerns facing the early care and education field at scale. To date, we’ve conducted over 6,800 direct child assessments; 9,400 surveys of parents/ guardians; 3,200 early care and education provider surveys; and 1,600 observations of early learning settings. We analyze this data to better understand relationships between children’s development and early learning experiences. Since 2020, we’ve also used this data to examine the influence of the pandemic on ELS@H families and early childhood educators.

The Results

Based on our initial recruitment and early data collection, we’ve learned that families with young children rely on a number of arrangements to care for their children. Nearly 52 percent of ELS@H children spent time in formal settings (e.g., community-based centers, public school PreK, and Head Start) while 27 percent spent time in informal settings (e.g., unlicensed relative care, unlicensed non-relative care, and family child care providers). Additionally, we’ve found that ELS@H families and early childhood educators experienced new stressors during the pandemic, and we’ve examined differences reported in children’s behavior when they were attending school in-person versus remotely.

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