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Early Care and Education Policies

Profile benchmarks for promoting access to ECE programs

Profile benchmarks for promoting quality of ECE programs

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Profile benchmarks for promoting access to ECE programs

State sets the income eligibility limit for child care subsidies at or above 200% FPL

Full-time high-quality child care allows parents to work, ensures children are safe, and supports healthy development, but costs for child care can range from $2,400 to $20,800 a year, depending on location, age, and the type of care.1, 2 A single parent who works full-time would have to spend 52% of the family’s income on child care for two children to attend an accredited child care facility. This amount is far above the 7% of family income that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ views as an affordable amount of payment for child care.3

Child care subsidies offered to families with incomes at or above 200% of the Federal Poverty Line allow poor and low-income working families to gain access to child care. Access to child care subsidies offers significant benefits for families and children:

  • By reducing the cost of care, and increasing parents’ ability to work, child care subsidies can reduce family economic hardship.1
  • Parents are more likely to select higher-quality childcare if it is subsidized, leading to better developmental outcomes for their children.1, 4
  • Child care subsidies and related access to child care are associated with reduced rates of child maltreatment.5

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State funds a pre-kindergarten program

State-funded pre-kindergarten programs can increase children’s access to high-quality early learning experiences that can support children’s development, later school success and family wellbeing.6 As of the 2020-2021 school year, 44 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam have state-funded preschool programs, with 29% of 4-year-olds and 5% of 3-year-olds enrolled across participating states.7

Recent studies suggest that high-quality, state-funded pre-kindergarten programs can positively impact young children and their families in both the short and long term.8-11

  • State-funded pre-kindergarten programs can support children’s early development and educational achievement. One study found that attending a state-funded pre-kindergarten program boosted children’s math skills and executive functioning by the end of kindergarten.8 Another study found that children who attended state-funded pre-kindergarten had higher mathematics test scores, greater enrollment in honors courses and reduced grade retention in middle school compared to children who did not attend.9 
  • Overall, evaluations of state-funded pre-kindergarten programs have reported mixed results concerning the longevity of their effects and the nature of their impact on young children.12, 13 These inconsistent findings may be linked to variability in features of state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, such as class size and ratio, curriculum support and funding.7
  • Access to state-funded pre-kindergarten programs can increase parental workforce participation by giving parents, particularly mothers, a source of free child care while they work.10 Increased parental workforce participation can boost household income and significantly benefit the US economy.11

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State supplements Head Start

In 2019, Head Start programs across the U.S. had the capacity to enroll 51% of all eligible 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income backgrounds.14 Supplementing Head Start federal funding with state-level funding can boost very low-income families’ access to Head Start and the comprehensive services it offers.

Research demonstrates that low-income children and their families benefit from access to high-quality Head Start programs in the short-term, in the long-term and intergenerationally.15-18

  • Families enrolled in Head Start receive substantial health and wellness support through Head Start’s services focused on preventive medical and oral health, nutrition education and children’s yearly screenings and assessments.19 One state reported that their Head Start programs increased the percent of young children up-to-date on their yearly screenings and assessments from 41% to 89%.17
  • Access to Head Start programs can support school and reading readiness during the preschool years and later educational attainment and economic outcomes in adulthood.15, 16 For example, one study found that adults who attended Head Start as children were more likely to graduate from highs school, attend college, and earn a postsecondary degree, certification, or license compared to their siblings who did not attend Head Start.15
  • The benefits of Head Start appear to be especially strong for children with low base-line skills and Dual Language Learners, and children in families facing greater challenges.20
  • Investing in Head Start may be an important strategy to combat intergenerational poverty and its effects. Studies of the intergenerational effects of Head Start found an increase in positive parenting practices for parents who attended Head Start, as well as increased educational attainment and reduced criminal engagement in the second generation.15, 18

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State requires districts to offer full-day kindergarten

Full-day kindergarten produces numerous benefits for young children and economic support for families.21-26

Research comparing the effectiveness of full-day and half-day kindergarten demonstrates more positive academic and social-emotional outcomes for children in full-day programs.21-24

  • Full-day kindergarten produces positive effects on children’s math and literacy skills, including oral language.21, 22
  • Full-day attendees also outperform children in half-day programs on measures of self-regulation (e.g., managing emotions) and social skills.22
  • Benefits of full-day kindergarten are also significant for subgroups of students such as English language learners,22 students with disabilities,23 and students who are at risk for placement in special education.24
  • Although the evidence is mixed concerning benefits of full-day kindergarten beyond kindergarten, a 2019 longitudinal study in Canada found promising evidence that play-based full-day kindergarten programs produce lasting gains for children’s academic achievement and self-regulation skills through second grade.22

Working parents also reap benefits from full-day kindergarten.25, 26

  • Recent research in Canada has shown that full-day kindergarten helps increase mothers’ work hours and decrease absenteeism, compared to half-day programs.25
  • Indirect evidence supporting full-day kindergarten is found in a review of prekindergarten program research in the U.S. showing that full-day prekindergarten programs for young children allow parents to work more hours, improving the economic security of the family. The work-related benefits are especially supportive of single-parent families who tend to have lower incomes than two-parent families.26 

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Profile benchmarks for promoting quality of ECE programs

State uses payment rate at or above 75th percentile of current market rate for center-based care at the highest quality QRIS tier | State has implemented a statewide Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS)

Young children benefit from center-based early care and education (ECE) that is of high quality, particularly children from low-income backgrounds.27 Though results of studies are mixed, there is some evidence that QRIS ratings are associated with ECE program quality and (to a lesser extent) with children’s early learning and development.28 ECE at the highest quality QRIS tier is often costly for families and ECE programs, and both benefit when states use payment rates at or above the 75th percentile of the current market rate.29-32

  • Research has shown that lower payment rates are not enough for high-quality child care providers to commit to enrolling lower income families using child care subsidies to afford the cost of care.33 Payment rates at or above the 75th percentile of the current market rate can incentivize high-quality center-based care programs to take part in the child care subsidy system.29
  • As of 2019, less than a quarter of sampled center-based programs across the states were rated at the highest quality QRIS tier.34 Higher payment rates for center-based programs may serve as encouragement for programs at lower quality QRIS tiers to invest in quality improvement, further increasing the overall quality of the child care system.29, 30 In support of this, one study reported the effectiveness of a tiered payment system in raising the quality of center-based child care programs.30 This finding was further linked to a greater enrollment of families in higher-tiered center-based programs.30
  • Using a payment rate at or above the 75th percentile of the current market rate for center-based care at the highest quality QRIS tier can increase access to high-quality center-based care for families with lower incomes.31 This may be especially important in light of research indicating the ability of high-quality child care to substantially narrow the gap in academic and adult employment wages between children from higher and lower income brackets.32

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State requires one adult for every four 18-month-olds in child care centers | State requires one adult for every ten 4-year-olds in child care centers | State requires one teacher for every 12 students in kindergarten classrooms

Child-teacher ratios are widely viewed as a key indicator of ECE quality by professional organizations, including the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). State licensing regulations set specific requirements for child-teacher ratios along with class or group size.35-38 Although research on the effects of ratios is limited and has produced mixed results, there is some evidence suggesting benefits of lower ratios. These benefits include:

  • More responsive and positive teacher behavior in interactions with children36
  • More cooperative and positive child behavior with more frequent verbal interactions with teachers36
  • Increases in children’s cognitive and achievement outcomes in settings with very low child-teacher ratios (i.e.,7.5:1 or under).37
  • Lower rates of expulsion from ECE programs found in some (but not all) studies.39, 40

An analysis of 29 studies that examined the relationship between child-teacher ratios and outcomes found mixed results, and where present, small associations between child outcomes (e.g., cognitive and social-emotional skills) and ratios. The authors point to the need for more research, with stronger methods and an examination of whether ratios matter more for children with particular needs or characteristics (e.g., children with language delays or social-emotional problems).41

For slightly older children (first graders), there is evidence that lower ratios may help reduce teachers’ intention to leave when they experience problems with children’s behavior.38


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State has an infant/toddler credential or certificate | State requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree for lead teachers in public pre-K programs and licensed child care centers

The professional and educational credentials of early childhood educators have long been considered a critical contributor to pre-K and child care program quality.7 Research has examined the impact of pre-K teachers’ educational attainment on program quality and child outcomes, and found mixed results,42 with some studies showing a link between increased educational attainment of lead pre-K teachers and higher classroom quality, including improved teacher-child interactions.43, 44 One likely reason for mixed results is the variation and overall low quality of teacher preparation programs that confer ECE teacher degrees.45

Studies have also suggested benefits of lead teachers in child care centers with infant and toddler credentials and certificates, such as specialized bachelor’s degrees and professional certificates, including teachers’ use of practices that promote children’s early learning and development.46-49

Despite mixed results of past research, the scientific committee of the National Research Council, recommended a BA degree requirement for lead ECE teachers in all settings serving children birth to age eight in its report, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation.50 However, this recommendation stipulated that degree preparation should be closely aligned with a set of ECE teacher competencies that would equip teachers to use age-specific practices and professional skills that promote children’s optimal development. Therefore, state degree and certification requirements for early childhood educators must be supported by enhancements in teacher preparation programs that achieve this outcome and by substantial financial investments that allow ECE educators to participate in exemplary teacher preparation programs. Early childhood educators are severely undercompensated for their work, particularly infant and toddler teachers, limiting their ability to pursue higher educational attainment.51 The results of one survey suggest that the majority of early childhood educators want to pursue a higher degree but lack adequate financial support.52


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State requires that infants and toddlers in child care centers be assigned a consistent primary caregiver

Recent research shows that infants and toddlers in child care centers significantly benefit from having an assigned and consistent primary caregiver.53-57

  • Requiring child care centers to assign infants and toddlers a consistent primary caregiver can promote secure adult-child attachments that support child development.53, 54 This may be particularly important for young children without secure attachments at home, considering the negative impact a lack of secure attachments can have on development.55, 56 One study reported that young children with insecure maternal attachments were able to form secure attachments to their center-based child care providers, which was then linked to more effective stress regulation.54
  • Child care centers that require infants and toddlers to have a consistent primary caregiver may support the development of strong relationships between families and child care providers.57 Solid family-provider relationships have been linked to positive child development, including greater social-emotional competence and decreased physical and emotional dysregulation.57

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State has comprehensive, free-standing standards for social emotional learning at the K-12 level

Providing opportunities for social emotional learning (SEL) can help children develop the skills necessary for positive relationships, academic success and later professional attainment.58 School districts attempting to integrate SEL into the classroom have cited the lack of a shared framework, including learning standards and benchmarks, as a barrier to formal implementation.59 As of 2022, 27 states have adopted comprehensive, free-standing standards for SEL at the K-12 level to support implementation and consistent, high-quality learning opportunities for children across the state.60

Research shows that investing in systemic, high-quality SEL at the K-12 level can significantly benefit children across grade levels.61, 62

  • High-quality K-12 SEL programs promote children’s academic growth.61 A meta-analysis spanning three decades of research reported long-term academic gains for children who attended a K-12 school using an SEL program compared to children whose schools did not have an SEL program, including higher grades and test scores.61
  • Investing in SEL at the K-12 level can bolster children’s mental health. Between 2016 and 2020, the percentage of children in the US experiencing depression and anxiety increased significantly, a trend that was evident prior to the pandemic and driven heavily by adolescents.62, 63 Studies have linked exposure to SEL at the K-12 level to increased resilience, which is a protective factor against depressive symptoms and anxiety in adolescence and adulthood.64

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1. Giannarelli, L., Adams, G., Minton, S. & Dwyer, K. (2019). What if we expanded child care subsidies? A national and state perspective. The Urban Institute.

2. Single Mother Guide. (2022). State child care assistance programs.

3. Whitehurst, G. (2017). Why the federal government should subsidize childcare and how to pay for it. The Brookings Institute.

4. Krafft, C., Davis, E., & Tout, K. (2016). Child care subsidies and the stability and quality of child care arrangements. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 39, 14-34.

5. Yang, M.-Y., Maguire-Jack, K., Showalter K., Kim, Y. K., & Slack, K. S. (2019). Child care subsidy and child maltreatment. Child & Family Social Work, 24. 547–554.

6. U.S. Census Bureau (2020). American Community Survey 2005-2019 1-year data sets. Retrieved from

7. Friedman-Krauss, A. H., Barnett, W. S., Garver, K. A., Hodges, K. S., Weisenfeld, G. G., Gardiner, B.A., & Jost, T.M. (2022). The State of Preschool 2021: State Preschool Yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research.

8. Peisner-Feinberg, E. S., Mokrova, I. L., & Anderson, T. L. (2017). Effects of participation in the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program at the end of kindergarten 2015-2016 state-wide evaluation. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, FBG Child Development Institute.

9. Gormley, W. T., Phillips, D., & Anderson, S. (2017). The effects of Tulsa’s Pre-K Program on middle school student performance. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 37(1), 63–87.

10. Ilin, E. Shampine, S., & Terry, E. (2021). Does access to free pre-kindergarten increase maternal labor supply? The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Research Working Papers.

11. Bivens, J., Garcia, E., Gould, E., Weiss, E., & Wilson, V. (2016). It’s time for an ambitious national investment in America’s children. Economic Policy Institute.

12. Durkin, K., Lipsey, M. W., Farran, D. C., & Wiesen, S. E. (2022). Effects of a statewide pre-kindergarten program on children’s achievement and behavior through sixth grade. Developmental Psychology, 58(3), 470–484.

13. Barnett, W. S., Jung, K., Friedman-Krauss, A., Frede, E. C., Nores, M., Hustedt, J. T., Howes, C., & Daniel-Echols, M. (2018). State prekindergarten effects on early learning at kindergarten entry: An analysis of eight state programs. AERA Open, 4(2), 1-16.

14. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Administration for Children and Families. (2022). Report to Congress on Head Start eligibility.

15. Schanzenbach, D.W. & Bauer, L. (2016). The long-term impact of the Head Start program. The Brookings Institution.

16. Bitler, M.P., Hoynes, H., & Domina, T. (2017). Head Start programs have significant benefits for children at the bottom of the skill distribution. UC Davis Center for Poverty Research.

17. Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS). (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on Head Start programs and families: Recommendations for health care providers and policymakers.

18. Barr, A. & Gibbs, C.R. (2022). Breaking the cycle? Intergenerational effects of an anti-poverty program in early childhood. Journal of Political Economy, forthcoming.

19. National Head Start Association. (2022). National 2022 Head Start & Early Head Start state profile.

20. Morris, P. A., Connors, M., Friedman-Krauss, A., McCoy, D. C., Weiland, C., Feller, A.,… & Yoshikawa, H. (2018). New findings on impact variation from the Head Start Impact Study: Informing the scale-up of early childhood programs. AERA Open, 4(2), 2332858418769287.

21. Cooper, H., Allen, A. B., Patall, E. A., & Dent, A. L. (2010). Effects of full-day kindergarten on academic achievement and social development. Review of Educational Research, 80(1), 34-70.

22. Patricia Pelletier, J., & Corter, J. E. (2019). A longitudinal comparison of learning outcomes in full-day and half-day kindergarten. The Journal of Educational Research, 112(2), 192-210.

23. Gottfried, M. A., & Little, M. H. (2018). Full-versus part-day kindergarten for children with disabilities: Effects on executive function skills. Early Education and Development, 29(2), 288-305.

24. Pelletier, J., & Fesseha, E. (2019). The impact of full-day kindergarten on learning outcomes and self-regulation among kindergarten children at risk for placement in special education. Exceptionality Education International, 29(3), 42-56.

25. Dhuey, E., Lamontagne, J., & Zhang, T. (2021). Full-day kindergarten: Effects on maternal labor supply. Education Finance and Policy, 16(4), 533-557.

26. Phillips, D., Lipsey, M., Dodge, K., Haskins, R., Bassok, D., Burchinal, M. R., Duncan, G. J., Dynarski, M., Magnuson, K. A., & Weiland, C. (2017). The current state of scientific knowledge on pre-kindergarten effects. The Brookings Institution.

27. Votruba-Drzal, E., Levine coley, R., & Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, P. (2004). Child care and low-income children’s development: Direct and moderated effects. Child Development, 75(1), 296–312.

28. Tout, K., Magnuson, K. Lipscomb, S., Karoly, L, Starr, R., Quick H., …& Wenner, J. (2017). Validation of the quality ratings used in Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS): A synthesis of state studies (OPRE Report #2017-92). Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

29. Greenberg, E. Isaacs, J.B., Derrick-Mills, T., Michie, M., & Stevens, K. (2018). Are higher subsidy payment rates and provider-friendly payment policies associated with child care quality? Urban Institute.

30. Bassok, D., Dee, T., & Latham, S. (2017). The effects of accountability incentives in early childhood education. NBER No. 23859. Available at:

31. National Center on Child Care Subsidy Innovation and Accountability. (2017). CCDF payment rates: Understanding the 75th percentile.

32. Bustamante, A. S., Dearing, E., Zachrisson, H. D., & Vandell, D. L. (2021). Adult outcomes of sustained high-quality early child care and education: Do they vary by family income? Child Development, 93(2), 502–523.

33. Workman, S. (2021). The true cost of high-quality child care across the United States. CAP.

34. National Center on Early Childhood Assurance. (2020). Program participation fact sheet.

35. Phillips, D., Mekos, D., Scarr, S., McCartney, K., & Abbott–Shim, M. (2000). Within and beyond the classroom door: Assessing quality in child care centers. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 15(4), 475-496.

36. de Schipper, E. J., Marianne Riksen‐Walraven, J., & Geurts, S. A. (2006). Effects of child–caregiver ratio on the interactions between caregivers and children in child‐care centers: An experimental study. Child Development, 77(4), 861-874.

37. Bonnes Bowne, J., Magnuson, K., Schindler, H., Duncan, G., & Yoshikawa, H. (2017). A meta-analysis of class sizes and ratios in early childhood education programs: Are thresholds of quality associated with greater impacts on cognitive, achievement, and socioemotional outcomes? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 39(3), 407–428.

38. Jensen, M. T. (2021). Pupil-teacher ratio, disciplinary problems, classroom emotional climate, and turnover intention: Evidence from a randomized control trial. Teaching and Teacher Education, 105, 103415.

39. Giordano, K., Goldberg, A., Engelberg, S., & O’Kane, M. (2022). Associations between program quality and expulsion of infants and young children from community childcare settings. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 1-9.

40. Zinsser, K. M., Silver, H. C., Shenberger, E. R., & Jackson, V. (2022). A Systematic Review of Early Childhood Exclusionary Discipline. Review of Educational Research, 00346543211070047.

41. Perlman, M., Fletcher, B., Falenchuk, O., Brunsek, A., McMullen, E., & Shah, P. S. (2017). Child-staff ratios in early childhood education and care settings and child outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PloS One, 12(1), e0170256.

42. Falenchuk, O., Perlman, M., McMullen, E., Fletcher, B., & Shah, P. S. (2017). Education of staff in preschool-aged classrooms in child care centers and child outcomes: A meta-analysis and systematic review. PLoS One, 12(8).

43. Manning, M., Garvis, S., Fleming, C., & Wong, G. T. W. (2017). The relationship between teacher qualification and the quality of the early childhood education and care environment. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 13(1), 1–82.

44. Markowitz, A. J., Sadowski, K., & Hamre, B. (2021). Teacher education and the quality of teacher-child interactions: New evidence from the universe of publicly-funded early childhood programs in Louisiana. Early Education and Development, 33(2), 290-308.

45. Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, Bellwether Education Partners, and National Institute for Early Education Research. (2020). Early educator preparation landscape. Early Educator Investment Collaborative.

46. National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning (NCECDTL). (2018). State/territory infant/toddler credential overview.

47. National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). (2019). Increasing qualifications, centering equity: Experiences and advice from early childhood educators of color.

48. Chen, J. J., Martin, A., & Erdosi-Mehaffey, V. (2016). The process and impact of the infant/toddler credential as professional development: Reflections from multiple perspectives and recommendations for policy. Early Childhood Education Journal, 45(3), 359–368.

49. Degotardi, S., Torr, J., & Han, F. (2018). Infant educators’ use of pedagogical questioning: Relationships with the context of interaction and educators’ qualifications. Early Education and Development, 29(8), 1004–1018.

50. Committee on the Science of Children Birth to Age 8: Deepening and Broadening the Foundation for Success; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Institute of Medicine; National Research Council. (2015). Transforming the workforce for children birth through age 8: A unifying foundation (Allen L., Kelly B.B., Eds.). National Academies Press.

51. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Occupational outlook handbook. U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved from

52. Schaack, D. & Le, V. (2017). The Colorado early childhood workforce survey 2017: Findings from the Denver Metropolitan area. Denver, Colorado: University of Colorado Denver.

53. Hawk, B. N., Mccall, R. B., Groark, C. J., Muhamedrahimov, R. J., Palmov, O. I., & Nikiforova, N. V. (2018). Caregiver sensitivity and consistency and children’s prior family experience as contexts for early development within institutions. Infant Mental Health Journal, 39(4), 432–448.

54. Eckstein-Madry, T., Piskernik, B., & Ahnert, L. (2020). Attachment and stress regulation in socioeconomically disadvantaged children: Can public childcare compensate? Infant Mental Health Journal, 42(6), 839–850.

55. Moutsiana, C., Fearon, P., Murray, L., Cooper, P., Goodyer, I., Johnstone, T., & Halligan, S. (2014). Making an effort to feel positive: Insecure attachment in infancy predicts the neural underpinnings of emotion regulation in adulthood. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(9), 999–1008.

56. Groh, A. M., Fearon, R. M., van IJzendoorn, M. H., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & Roisman, G. I. (2016). Attachment in the early life course: Meta-analytic evidence for its role in socioemotional development. Child Development Perspectives, 11(1), 70–76.

57. Lang, S. N., Jeon, L., Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J., & Wells, M. B. (2020). Associations between parent–teacher cocaring relationships, parent–child relationships, and young children’s social emotional development. Child & Youth Care Forum, 49(4), 623–646.

58. Paolini, A. C. (2020). Social emotional learning: Key to career readiness. Anatolian Journal of Education, 5(1), 125–134.

59. Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. (2019). Report to the Legislature: Social-emotional learning in Washington’s K-12 public schools.

60. Dermody, C, & Dusenbury, L. (2022). 2022 Social and emotional learning state scorecard scan. Chicago: Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

61. Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school-based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development, 88(4), 1156–1171.

62. Lebrun-Harris, L. A., Ghandour, R. M., Kogan, M. D., & Warren, M. D. (2022). Five-year trends in U.S. Children’s health and well-being, 2016-2020. JAMA Pediatrics, 176(7).

63. Panchal, N., Rudowitz, R., & Cox, C. (2022, Jun 28). Recent trends in mental health and substance abuse use concerns among adolescents. Kaiser Family Foundation.

64. Dowling, K., Simpkin, A. J., & Barry, M. M. (2019). A cluster randomized-controlled trial of the MindOut social and emotional learning program for disadvantaged post-primary school students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 48(7), 1245–1263.   

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