Children in New Mexico deserve the best start in life, and by some measures, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2013 Kids Count report, they are receiving the absolute worst in the country. This isn’t just an ethical issue but also has deep economic implications. Investing in our children creates jobs, reduces crime and makes for a healthier community.

But what’s the best way to intervene? According to compelling analytical research, there are two critical elements. First, you start early. Second, you aim to build character as well as intelligence.

In 2010, Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman looked back at 35 years of data from the groundbreaking Perry Preschool program in Ypsilanti, Mich., and found something remarkable: Quality early childhood programs can dramatically improve outcomes not only in education but also in employment and health for disadvantaged children over time. The rate of return on investment in the very young is very high. By some estimates, every dollar spent on high-quality early education saves up to $10 in the future. Quality programs not only train teachers and educate children but also create long-term positive outcomes for the larger community.

Heckman has now added to his initial body of research by showing how these programs do it. Positive character traits, such as curiosity, cooperation and resilience have a significant impact on both academic achievement and success in life.

Educators and policymakers often assume that cognitive skills are the only indicators of success and therefore overlook a powerful way to positively shape young children’s lives. The enhancement of character skills, as proven by the outcomes of the Perry program and other initiatives, reduced instances of lying, cheating, aggression and classroom disruption. This, in turn, improved earning potential, health and reduced criminal behavior later in life.

New Mexico would be remiss in shortchanging its youngest by measuring the effectiveness of our early care and education programs solely on gains in cognitive development. We must also invest in developing the character of our youngest residents through high-quality early education.

Catherine Dry is the director of the Santa Fe Baby Fund at the Santa Fe Community Foundation.

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